Glittering Images

At a first glance Glittering Images, starting from Egyptian art, going on through the centuries with major focus on twentieth century art and George Lucas’ Star War’s appears to be a useful introduction and overview to art history for first year university students.
The book is printed on high quality art paper in an elegant and readable typeface. It would look very nice as one of our famous, unread and untouched coffee table books, though it is smaller than most.
After the acknowledgments at the back of the book she writes, “No research assistants were used for this or any other of my books. Whatever errors may appear are entirely my own.” I wouldn’t want to read a book by anyone else substituting for her, given that she’s the “intellectual” of the world, and as she says, “I’m probably one of the last ones left”. The resulting book has twenty-nine chapters, plus the introduction (the best part). She is plain interesting and worth reading.
Starting from the middle of the book (as internet dependency has shrunk my attention span; an already short book of 202 pages seems shorter that way) with an essay entitled “City in Motion” about Edouard Manet and his painting At the Café’, Manet is quoted, “We are not in Rome, and we don’t want to go there. We are in Paris—let’s stay here.” This was thanks to a quarrel he had had with a male model in Couture’s studio who was modelling in classical positions. Manet challenged the status quo, something that Paglia also does. She does indeed rock the boat in her book, over and over again.
Moving backward to the introduction, I was enthralled. I could really relate to modern life seen as a “sea of images” and how we are all faced with too much visual over stimulation thanks to mass media and our electronic gadgets. Professor Boat Rocker continues with how children “receive a torrential stream of flickering images, which addict them to seductive distractions and make social reality, with its duties and ethical concerns, seem dull and futile. The only way to teach focus is to present the eye with opportunities for steady perception – best supplied by the contemplation of art.” Does this mean also contemplating Star Wars? Is it something worth contemplating? How can she dare compare Lucas’ Cross-Sections books to Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks?
Perhaps she has also been a disgruntled professor watching her students glued to their tablets or phones instead of listening to her lectures. Perhaps she feels discouraged by their apparent lack of interest in anything else. She offers solutions, mainly education as she believes in teaching. Is anyone listening anymore? What can be done about everyone’s gadgets? It’s a bit of a problem for which I don’t think she really has a solution, except, in her own terms, they have the great art work of George Lucas’ Star Wars to contemplate.
On Q TV, Paglia speaks about her book in rapid sequences like a machine gun, shooting out the words one after another rather aggressively, not giving the listener time to minimally absorb the “important” things she says. Her excessive gestures and body movements are quite disturbing at times. I wonder if she does this in the classroom too. It would be nice if she could speak without causing everyone else to huff and puff to keep up with her, as though she were on speed or worse. We should probably forget her interviews and just look at her writing, though the interviews give another perspective to the writing and its contents.

Book of Kells. Madonna and Child

Surprisingly, with the Egyptians, she starts with their haunting messages from the dead. Is it that a message from the dead is secretly haunting her when she speaks in front of a camera? Is this why she cannot relax and relate to her interlocutors? The messages from the dead in ancient Egypt perhaps connect to the messages from Star Wars: Immortality and eternal life, both present in Egyptian art and in Star Wars “art”. This could have contributed to her choice of Lucas for the last chapter, or better, her version of The Last Supper.
I wonder about her choices. Why doesn’t she reflect more on her Italian heritage? Where are the Futurists? Do they not send messages from their graves? I also wonder why her “journey through art from Egypt to Star Wars” only focuses on the western world? Is ancient Egyptian art considered part of the western world or not? It must be borderline. John Adams from the New York Times finds that confining the choice of artwork “almost exclusively to Europe and North America is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable. How can any serious survey published in 2012 slight the testament of the human condition as expressed in artworks from the world’s other civilizations?”
“The important question,” she writes “about art is: what lasts, and why?” Regarding Tamara de Lempicka’s painting Portrait of Doctor Boucard, as he holds the test tube of blood she says, “it implies that Dr. Boucard, like the Egyptians, is searching for the secret of eternal life. But as Lempicka demonstrates in this painting that resurrects a once famous but now forgotten man, only art has that power.” Is she, herself, afraid of being forgotten? Is that the urgency we can detect when she speaks?
With the final chapter on Star Wars with a shot by shot breakdown, it’s as though we are talking about a Leonardo da Vinci or a Rubens. My neighbour’s five-year-old has all the film series and the merchandise, including t-shirts, Lego toys and video games, in which he is totally mesmerized while playing. He even has the £19.99 Lego Skywalker watch. Disney is now building two Star War Lands, one in California and the other in Florida. There will also soon be a Star Wars TV series in streaming to make this an ongoing art affair. Virtual reality experiences of the Star Wars story will soon be available in Anaheim, California, London and Orlando malls where people can get their own performance for thirty minutes at $30 (any longer would be an extra dollar per minute) complete with goggles and computer backpacks. Can this “art” experience get any “better? If indeed this is art, what can be next?
Paglia started with the Egyptians and ended the book with George Lucas’s Star Wars because there is a connection. With some ongoing discussion about who really built the Egyptian pyramids believed by many to have been the aliens, the connection to Star Wars becomes idiomatic.
Why is she so fascinated by Star Wars? This is the art all of us gadget dependents have been waiting for. Does it give us what Paglia says looking at a painting should give us, “A magical tranquillity?” I’m not sure, but certainly the multi-billion-dollar empire of Star Wars is proof that she’s right.
Jian Ghomeshi interviewing Paglia on Q TV referring to George Lucas asks, “hasn’t he contributed to those glittering flashing images that are distracting us from art?” Paglia evades the answer and says that “she was searching for strong examples of contemporary art to end the book with a bang and no other contemporary artist has attempted or succeeded it.” Really? Philip Marchand from SF Gate says, “art quickly tends towards decadence, as the last chapter of this book demonstrates.” While SF Gate J.M. Tyre: “Paglia’s lionizing of George Lucas as “the world’s greatest living artist” is a calibrated outrage that pointedly rejects the institutionalization of contemporary art and deliberately embraces trash.”

Charioteer of Delphi

She says in Los Angeles Magazine: “Lucas was not part of my original plan for the book. But as I was searching for strong works of contemporary art with which to end the book, I couldn’t find them. It was very discouraging. Everything seemed to be derivative of something else. No one was making bold statements except in the field of architecture. As I was writing the book—which took five years—I would channel surf for relaxation and repeatedly encounter the Star Wars films being broadcast by Spike TV. Slowly, the enormous power of the volcano-planet finale of Revenge of the Sith worked its magic on me. I became obsessed with it. It seemed like epic poetry, nature painting, and grand opera all rolled into one. After studying it deeply, I think that the long, complex finale of Sith is the most important work of art produced anywhere in the world in the last 30 years.”
Star Wars, she says, has “penetrated the imagination of young people for three generations around the world.” Isn’t this just what we’re worried about, the loss of imagination of our young people? Can’t you see it Paglia? Can’t you see that you too have fallen into the trap? Your mind has been taken.
Professor Boat Rocker I wish to thank you for your book; it was well worth the read, which I found very thought provoking. You have helped me focus on the state of the art world more than I have been able to in the last ten years. It isn’t necessary for me to like all aspects of your book for me to advise others to read it. Who knows, maybe even Disney will make a film of your life and immortalize your writings in a format more conforming to the non-readers of tomorrow.

Pendery Weekes is the managing editor UK and a writer

volume 32 no 5 May / June 2018 pp 36-37

10 thoughts on “Camille Paglia’s Glittering Images

  1. I have enjoyed the Star Wars films over the years, but there are three sets. The first set are the earliest trio starting in 1977, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. The second set are the trio of film mad 20 years (or so) later, which chronicles the events the lead up to first trio of films mentioned above. The third trio are the current movies that started just a couple of years ago.
    The first trio of films is still the best. The second trio of films (including Revenge of the Sith in particular) are mediocre and unmemorable at best. The most recent films have their heart in the right place and come much closer to the feel and heart of the original trio, but there is a problem with all the Star Wars film that follow the second film of the original trio.
    That second film, The Empire Strikes back contains one of the greatest story telling arcs of story EVER:
    “Luke, I am your father.”
    That is one of the most amazing story reveals in history, and one of the greatest. The problem is: How can you ever top that? The answer is: You can’t! And because you can’t top it, all the Star Wars films that follow The Empire Strikes Back can’t come close to the power of that film.
    So, generally speaking, I would have to say, for the most part, the Star Wars Films are not art. They are, however, perhaps the biggest influence on the movie making business, since the release of the first film. And that influence has hardly been for the good of cinema. Spectacle and special effects have reigned over all too often at the expense of good stories and characters who are real.

    End of rant!

    James Bradford Taylor

    1. Hi Brad,
      I enjoyed your comment. We could apply what you wrote to the art world, perhaps re-writing your last sentence as: Spectacle and special effects have reigned over all too often at the expense of good visual concepts and images that are real. Too much energy today goes into trying to shock, rather than represent what the artist visualizes.

      1. Hi John,
        Isn’t that what Camille Paglia was trying to do with her last chapter on Star Wars saying that “the long, complex finale of Sith is the most important work of art produced anywhere in the world in the last 30 years.”? She wanted to shock, giving in to spectacle and special effects as works of art, giving in to a populist culture, an American culture of idiots. What else can we do in the art world today, but shock?

      2. After the shocks come the lobotomies – no longer dumbing down, but numbing down. That’s the video culture that Pagllia refers to, what we are all facing with our children today. However, it’s also very possible that in a similar culture of nullity some outstanding artists and writers will be born. I try and see it in a positive light.

  2. No one here mentions Robert Indiana, who recently passed away. His blending of visual meanings with simple verbal messages have had a profound influence on contemporary art, perhaps a better choice than Star Wars for the last chapter of Paglia’s book. I think his greatest contribution was his “Love” works with the L and O on top of the V and E. They are still fresh and appealing today, showing the timelessness of his work with one tiny but fundamental word.

    1. I agree with you Daichi, Robert Indiana would have given a powerful and positive message as a choice for Camille Paglia’s last chapter to her book. He said, “Love has been probably the best thing that ever happened for me and the worst thing.” From his obituary published by The Independent, “he recognised how his past and future had been shaped by a single word, in all its many forms: love.” Isn’t this our eternal dilemma?

  3. Glittering Images is a very thought provoking book, especially considering how many children (and adults) are dependent on their electronic devices. Online newspapers are writing shorter and shorter articles, but are producing more and more videos as people shun from reading more than a line or two of text. It’s common to see small children in shopping trolleys at the supermarket totally engaged with their tablets in absolute silence, mesmerized by the “glittering images” of their video games, not looking at what’s going on around them nor talking to whoever is shopping with them. It’s not enough for tourists to only visit beautiful buildings, art museums, archaeological sites, countrysides or coastal villages; it’s the image(s) of themselves at these locations that must dominate the scene, that must be immediately sent to the thousands of personally unknown “friends” they have in their social media accounts. Long live the selfie; this is what should have been Camille Paglia’s final chapter – The Selfie as the greatest artwork of our era, or long live the egocentric society that we have.

    1. Antony, I rebel against what is taking place today and totally disagree with you that the Selfie should be considered the greatest art work of our times!!! Were you serious when you wrote what you wrote? Nor do I agree with Camille Paglia on her choice of Star Wars. The future of art is not digital; we must go back to our origins and create art with our own hands, not electronically.

    2. It doesn’t have to be this way. People don’t have to remain apathetic about the status quo of digital numbing, or do they?

  4. I found Camille Paglia’s Glittering Images a striking book until I read the last chapter, where she totally deluded me. It reflects the ritalin laced culture our children now live in with so many being diagnosed with ADHD, thanks to films and video games like Star Wars. Is this what our culture is all about today? I refuse to accept her opinion on George Lucas and think there is much more to the art world than flashing lights and glittering images here on earth.

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