There always have been two sides to Camille Paglia's career as a celebrity cultural pundit and best-selling arts critic. As a contrarian agent provocateur, Paglia has trashed liberal academics, ridiculed the contemporary art world and outraged humanities scholars and feminist critics on an array of issues from literary theory to sexual politics. Yet she's also an art-for-art's-sake worshiper of art and literature whose close readings, influenced by Walter Pater and Sigmund Freud, are pyrotechnic and passionate.
Paglia's championing of disruptive decadence from Edgar Allan Poe (in her 1990 blockbuster Sexual Personae) to Alfred Hitchcock (in her joyous 1998 book on "The Birds") and Madonna has provided a corrective lens on the moralizing and sanitizing view of art, shared by the left and the right, as a kind of health supplement pill.
Paglia's new book, Glittering Images, a personal tour through All Art Ever Made, from ancient Egypt to "Star Wars," is the kind of Plato-to-NATO survey whose passing she laments in her introductory essay as a casualty of the culture wars. Fortunately, this book, despite its vast scope and mostly chronological arrangement from 2800 B.C. to 2005, makes no attempt to be systematic or totalizing, being modeled instead on "Catholic breviaries of devotional images, like Mass cards of the saints."
Describing and contextualizing these works of art from the eighth-century Book of Kells to George Grosz's brutal portrayals of 1920s Germany and witty contemporary projects by Eleanor Antin and Renée Cox Paglia adds a miniature essay, most no longer than a few pages.
Particularly pleasing are Paglia's sketches on Donatello's still-shocking 15th-century sculpture of Mary Magdalene as a starved ascetic, and on Titian's voluptuously sensual "Venus With a Mirror" (c. 1555), two nearly diametrically opposed works that Paglia makes speak to each other by noting curiously androgynous elements in both figures.
It's a high-wire act making the whole add up to something more than the sum of its parts. Paglia manages it by treating her book as a slide show, so that the relentlessly austere Caspar David Friedrich's "The Sea of Ice" (1823-24) in which a ship is crushed by implacable arctic forces is juxtaposed in surprising fashion by the following image, Manet's 1879 "At the Cafe," a subtle study of ordinary Paris street life. The paintings, as well as the artists and their eras, thereby achieve a collage-like mutual illumination.
Following the curator of this personal museum, gallery by gallery, from era to era, one is struck anew by Paglia's careerlong project of reinstating old-fashioned generalism and quasi-religious veneration in arts criticism, in marked opposition to the atomized specialization that often dominates university humanities courses.
Generalism works best when it pretends not to universal knowledge but to universal curiosity. It also tends to thrive on a certain tone of subtly polemical placidity, but this is not exactly Paglia's strong suit, as her overheated introduction makes clear. Paglia's stance that the "arts community" should "renounce its infantilizing dependence on the government dole" sounds like a memo from the desk of Mitt Romney. It's also a puzzling claim, inasmuch as one of Paglia's artistic icons, Eleanor Antin, was a past recipient of NEA funding but does anyone under 60 care to refight old battles over "Piss Christ"?
Another problem here is the kind of "Wikipediaspeak" that inevitably creeps into canned summaries of epochs and movements. Reading that "neoclassicism" means "new classicism" and, apropos of Renée Cox's 1998 work "Chillin' With Liberty," that "in African-American slang, 'chillin' ' means relaxing," aren't exactly eureka moments.
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. Closing the book with a chapter on "The Revenge of the Sith" is bizarre but not humorless. It's also a bet on Lucas' pivotal role in the development of digital arts culture: His maker's mark will be on all the pottery.
But Paglia's choice of Lucas is revealing in another, less obvious sense. They're both Baby Boomers who started out as anti-institutional outsiders with a genuine affinity for the wilderness, only to become household names encouraged to mass-produce and not always to their own advantage. Glittering Images would finish more forcefully if it countered the flood of Boomer self-canonization, passing the torch instead to a younger and more decadent digital generation that intuitively shares in Walter Pater's project, as Paglia described it in Sexual Personae, to "neutralize all social and moral limitations on art."