Review of Camille Puglia’s Glittering Images (Vintage, 2013)
Paglia’s Sexual Personae burst upon the scene at the beginning of the 90s and a storm of controversy followed. Academics, art critics, and thinkers of various kinds weighed in. Television appearances and articles in the popular press have extended her reach to a broader public who remain enflamed—some against her, others in her defense. Earlier this year the London Sunday Times published her article “Why Rihanna is the New Diana,” and social media sites went wild.
In Glittering Images, Paglia tackles an issue addressed by many others of our time: the fractured nature of our daily lives. We are barraged with glittering, jittery images, whether driving through an intersection plastered with video boards, sitting at our computers, having a drink at a bar, even as we fill our cars with gas at service stations. The result, Paglia asserts, is that “instant global communication has liberated a host of individual voices but paradoxically threatened to overwhelm individuality itself.”
To survive in this “age of vertigo” Paglia wants us, and our children especially, to relearn how to see, to find focus, which she says is “the basis of stability, identity, and life direction.” And the best way to find focus—in fact, she says, the only way—is to “present the eye with opportunities for steady perception—best supplied by the contemplation of art.”
What follows in Glittering Images is a walk through history, guided by twenty-nine works of art presented in chronological order, each representing a style or school of art. The chapters are short, the reproductions of the art works are excellent (at least in my hardcover edition) and Paglia’s writing is as colourful as we’ve come to expect of her, and as well-documented. She is clearly writing for a general audience, young people included. But while the writing is clear and simple, the ideas are not dumbed down. Her wit and persuasiveness had me looking forward to the next chapter, not wondering when the lesson would end.
Take for example the chapter on Pablo Picasso’s eight-foot high painting, Les Damoiselles d’Avignon. Now owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Picasso painted it in 1907 in his squalid one-room studio apartment in Montmarte, Paris. Yes, Picasso is famous enough for almost anyone to know of him, but Paglia calls this “one of the most original and disturbing works in the history of art” and claims that it has stood up as “the most important painting of the 20th Century,” an epithet applied to it as early as the 1950s. I studied the photograph of the painting for a while, sceptical, and then read on.
Paglia draws attention to various aspects of the painting, pointing out the styles that influenced Picasso as he painted Les Damoiselles. That figure draws on Egyptian art with its anatomical contortions, and on the posture common to Greek statues of athletes. This one is channelling the winged Victory of Samothrace (created in 190 BC and decorating the Daru staircase of the Louvre since 1884). Those ones allude to the Venetian tradition of lazy, opulent nudes who also appeared in Turkish and Algerian works. The two with domed heads and large ears are based on pre-Roman Iberian sculptures found near Picasso’s hometown of Malaga in Spain. Those show echos of tribal masks that started to be collected and represented in a big way in Paris, including by Picasso’s friend and rival, Matisse. And the painting as a whole displays a revolutionary dual point of view, not seen since Byzantine art. Since all these styles were described in previous chapters, Paglia’s analysis in this chapter functions as a familiar summary and a compelling example of the progression of styles, each linked to what came before.
But when Paglia got to pointing out the raised eyebrows and claimed they came from a homoerotic statue that always fascinated Picasso, namely Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, I was ready to add a grain of salt again. But Paglia is a researcher and academic and doesn’t make her statements lightly, it turns out. She points to the vast array of materials available to us as we try to understand Picasso’s mind and works. Among them is a photograph of his studio that shows a life-sized plaster copy of this statue. Perhaps “fascinated” isn’t strong enough.
What seems to attract the avid attention of everyone from art critics to the general population is the philosophical underpinning Paglia brings to all her analyses. Mentored by Harold Bloom, influenced heavily by Freud, highly critical of the French post-structuralists, vocal about her politics and willing to change parties to support principles, and bringing a wealth of literary references to bear on her analyses, Paglia produces a maelstrom of ideas that spill out one after the other in her earlier works. But the role of sex gets everyone’s attention.
As she points out in Sexual Personae, every human must wrestle with nature but the burden falls most heavily on the female, who has the largest role to play in the creative force. We create societies as a defense against nature’s power, but societies are artificial constructions that can be wiped out by nature in minutes. Sex is a subset of nature while sexuality and eroticism are the intersection of nature and culture. Calling on Freud’s “family romance,” she believes we each have an incestuous constellation of sexual personae that we carry from childhood to the grave and that determines how we love or hate.
It’s no surprise then that nature, a deeply earthy force, will come through in art. Les Damoiselles is a “visceral adaptation of primitivism,” demonstrating the violence of ancient nature cults. In the painting, sex is “a gateway to a world of pure biologic force where man is nothing and where woman, a mother goddess splitting into her weird sisters, is everything.” Paglia also sees the painting as a ruined altar, laden with forbidden fruit and slabs of meat. The women’s snake-like eyes make them “sleepless watchmen of the heaven-hell of sex.”
Alongside her analysis of styles and assertions regarding the symbols that reveal deep truths about human existence, Paglia interweaves biographical and historical information. Picasso didn’t choose the title of the painting and was irritated by it, calling it “mon bordel” or “my brothel.” He also called it his first “exorcism painting,” a sort of experiment with black magic that lends credence to much of Paglia’s interpretation.
Each chapter reads well on its own. The final chapter on George Lucas’s Revenge of the Sith (the sixth film in the Star Wars series) was perhaps my biggest surprise of the book. She calls Lucas the greatest artist of our time and gives over considerable space to telling his amazing life story. He turns out to be a great inventor, building laboratories (with the profit from American Graffiti!) and creating new technologies that would turn out to make possible many more accomplishments by others. He also produced books that have made a major contribution to art education for young people. By the end of the chapter, I actually wanted to see all the Star Wars movies.
Read enough Paglia and you are bound to find brilliant new ideas and to be upset at some of the old comfortable ones that have to be re-thought. She is consistent and builds a case for her interpretations. Confine your reading to Glittering Images and you can comfortably focus just on seeing some spectacular pieces of art with new eyes and, yes, with a calm focus.
Joy Roberts is a communicator, philanthropist, and fundraiser with emphases on natural environments and ecologies and on the value of the arts in our daily lives. Joy is a founder of two charitable organizations in southern Ontario: the rare Charitable Research Reserve and the Musagetes Foundation. She has been the Chair of Musagetes since 2009. Joy received her doctorate from the University of Waterloo in Rhetoric, a field concerned with human motivation and persuasion.