Glittering Images

My tongue is not entirely in cheek when I say I have never been able to make up my mind about best-selling art critic and social commentator Camille Paglia. Is she really the bisexual leftwing atheist she professes herself to be? Or, is it possible that is a persona she has cleverly assumed, knowing that the views she often expresses would be derided, at best, or worse and more likely, simply ignored if she voiced them as, say, a traditional Catholic?

Whichever, it has worked for her. It has enabled the likes of a Rush Limbaugh to go on the radio and, in effect, tell listeners, as he has done more than once, “See, even a bisexual leftwing atheist like Camille Paglia agrees with me.”

I am doing virtually the same when I say here, as I now do, that I nearly always find reading her worth my time. That is as much the case as ever with her latest book, Glittering Images; A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. This even if I can’t quite swallow it that George Lucas is “the world’s greatest living artist” or see what Paglia does in the drippings of Jackson Pollock.

No, let me revise what I just said about Pollock. I do see it, but am not exhilarated by “infinite vistas of warp-speed time travel.” I do not care for speed — not through time or in anything else. Count me ad adherent of the Slow Movement, begun by Italians in protest against the infestation in their country of McDonalds so-called restaurants. My trouble with speed is that it nearly always entails compromise. That is what I really dislike. It may begin with compromising taste and nutrition by microwaving a processed meal, or emotion by shooting off an email when a heartfelt letter would be far more appropriate, but the habit of fast and easy become engrained is too apt to end by abandoning principle in politics and truth in religion. It is compromise that produces the color of the life of society and most individuals today: grey.

I am sure Paglia understands what I am saying here, though she may sometimes feel the need to jolt herself with a dose of “warp-speed” even as someone normally satisfied with a glass or two of wine might want an occasional night of boisterous drinking. Excitement and relaxation are both human needs. It remains, there will be a point in most human affairs where intransigence becomes vital, if only to avoid turning grey.

Why am I sure Paglia understands what it is to be fully human? Quite simply because, as atheistic as she declares herself as being, she regularly writes about our spiritual side. She knows soul exists. Listen to the opening two paragraphs of Glittering Images:

“Modern life is a sea of images. Our eyes are flooded by bright pictures and clusters of text flashing at us from every direction. The brain, overstimulated, must rapidly adapt to process this swirling barrage of disconnected data. Culture in the developed world is now largely defined by all-pervasive mass media and slavishly monitored personal electronic devices. The exhilarating expansion of instant global communication has liberated a host of individual voices but paradoxically threatens to overwhelm individuality itself.

“How to survive in this age of vertigo? We must relearn how to see. Amid so much jittery visual clutter it is crucial to find focus, the basis of stability, identity, and life direction. Children above all deserve rescue from the 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. Looking at art requires stillness and receptivity, which realign our senses and produce a magical tranquility.”

Let’s repeat that one line, “We must relearn how to see.” Only think, how many can walk into Saint Louis’s Sainte Chapelle today and even discern that its windows relate the entirety of both the Old and New Testaments? All that most see is simply pretty colors. And it’s not merely seeing we need to relearn. Grown men fainted when the polyphony of Palestrina’s Pope Marcelllus Mass was first heard. Who hears music with ears like that anymore? Then there’s reading. With so many “slavishly monitoring personal electronic devices” or simply vegetating in front of old-fashioned television, the number of persons who read poetry and novels continues to dwindle.

I say Amen to every word of Paglia’s two paragraphs, and also to this: “Art unites the spiritual and the material realms. In an age of alluring, magical machines, a society that forgets art risks losing its soul.”

Paglia is speaking there of society at large, but what she voices can equally be said of smaller ones, including the society of Catholics who call themselves traditional but ignore the two millennia-old tradition of great art that is their heritage. The rejection of that heritage is the basis of Paglia’s condemnation of the so-called avant garde, which she sees as dead. “While evil has sometimes been done in its name,” she writes, “religion has been an enormously civilizing force in world history. Sneering at religion is juvenile, symptomatic of a stunted imagination. Yet that cynical posture has become de rigueur in the art world — simply another reason for the shallow derivativeness of so much contemporary art, which has no big ideas left.”

Who knows? If the majority of traditional Catholics did not neglect art as they do — not merely painting but literature and music also — they might in good time find the spiritual force — soul — that would propel them from the margin of the larger society to where they used to be: at its heart (another word for soul). In that position they could even rescue art itself from its modern “shallow derivativeness” and make it again what it was in the days when Caravaggio painted, Mozart composed his Requiem, and Shakespeare wrote his great plays. Then some future Camille Paglia wouldn’t have to disguise herself in order to be heard, as if that were what the present one actually is doing.