By Sean Craig

Camille Paglia, the indispensable art critic and long-serving Professor of Humanities at the University of the Arts, has for over two decades lived in the shadow of Camille Paglia, the polemicist, enfant terrible, expert provocateur and, according the British writer Julie Burchill, “crazy old dyke.” Paglia is the lesbian who doesn’t like lesbians, the pro-drug libertarian who wouldn’t touch the stuff herself. And, through no fault of her own, the extravagances of Paglia’s proclamations have too often lead spectators to overlook the marrow of her ideas.

She became an international celebrity in 1990 upon the release of Sexual Personae, wherein Paglia argues that Western art and culture are underlined by the pagan fixations on phalluses and Earth goddesses that pre-date Christian hegemony. An ardent defender of free expression and inquiry, she was a darling of the British and American talk show circuits on account of her parallel advocacy for Madonna’s tits and Rush Limbaugh’s revulsion at the sight of them.

Paglia’s mission today, however, is less confrontational and yet more ambitious: She wants American culture to embrace the story of art. Paglia has just released Glittering Images, a direct and beautiful volume dedicated to the study of 29 works throughout art history. The book launches her quest to make David’s La Mort de Maratas common in US public schools as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Crucially, Paglia has the writerly gifts to make introductory art history sing to the uninitiated and old hands alike. It’s an essential work by an essential public intellectual. Paglia hasn’t left behind controversy, either: in the book’s final chapter, fed up with the direction of contemporary art, she argues that George Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith is the greatest work of art in recent memory. So, if you’re just wrapping up that MFA, set your sights on Mace Windu and Padmé Amidala instead of Jessica Warboys and David Altmejd.

Anyway, we were delighted to speak to Camille Paglia about contemporary art, education, penises, her goals for this new project, and Lorraine Bracco’s terrible acting.

VICE: So, Camille, how come contemporary art is so terrible?
Creative energy has migrated into industrial design and digital animation—videogames, for example, are booming!  Commercial architecture is also thriving, as shown by amazingly monumental new buildings everywhere from Dubai to Beijing. But the fine arts have become very insular and derivative. There is good work being done, but it too often reminds me of ten other sometimes better things over the past 100 years. The main problem is a high-concept mentality. There’s too much gimmickry and irony and not enough intuition and emotion. 

Well, what about Revenge of the Sith? You say it’s the greatest work of art, in any medium, created in the last 30 years. It’s better than… uh, Matthew Barney or Rachel Whiteread or Chris Ware or Peter Doig? 
Yes, the long finale of Revenge of the Sith has more inherent artistic value, emotional power, and global impact than anything by the artists you name. It’s because the art world has flat-lined and become an echo chamber of received opinion and toxic over-praise. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes—people are too intimidated to admit what they secretly think or what they might think with their blinders off.

Sort of like, regarding Bronzino’s Neptune, what you call the art world’s “nagging doubt about the dignity of the penis.
It’s always been very difficult for artists to present the penis in a serious way. It lends itself all too easily to comedy!

Bronzino’s Neptune.

But the penis has dignity!
Greek athletes or heroes were always shown with very small penises—it was a mark of intellectuality. Large penises by definition were ridiculous or animalistic—the exact opposite of modern standards. Modern gay male pornography has made the penis heroic by focusing on it as a totem of ritual display. But the problem with that is that there’s little room for any other aesthetic meanings in the image. I adore Tom of Finland, the Scandinavian illustrator whose drawings of stupendously phallic leathermen revolutionized the gay fantasy world. But even Tom found the penis funny!

OK, so with your new book, you’re trying to start a conversation about art education in America…
There is no art education in America—only do-it-yourself stuff where students are handed construction paper and glue pots and invited to unleash their hidden creativity. It’s basically therapeutic pandering. Glittering Images is the first shot in my crusade to get real art history into elementary and middle school. Students need to be introduced to major artists and learn how to look at a painting or sculpture.

Well, how come glue pots are in schools and “real art history” isn’t?
The fine arts have never been deeply rooted in the US, which started with the art-phobic Puritans. Americans have always been a practical, utilitarian people. Art and beauty seemed frivolous or even decadent. Art history survey courses should be central to the university curriculum, but they’re slowly being phased out because young professors are not being trained to think in long historical trajectories. On the contrary, they’re told that chronology is a false narrative about the past. You wouldn’t believe the rubbish that’s been going down for 30 years at the elite schools!

So here we have this problem. We’re talking about how academic institutions are flawed but we need to expand and refine art education. That means more arts funding and grants, right? But isn’t it anti-democratic when public institutions fund artists? It’s been argued the insular, grant world removes the obligations artists have to cultivate an audience and, by extension, participate in the culture.
Arts funding is pitifully low in the US and needs to be radically expanded. But the government should not be involved in awarding grants directly to individual artists—that is an invitation to venality and corruption. Instead, the funding should be distributed to communities to apportion as they see fit. It is especially critical for dance, which requires safe and roomy rehearsal space, now very costly in major cities. While painters and poets can work for decades on their own, dancers absolutely require contact with master teachers, who are the living embodiments of the great tradition of that art form. Similarly, musical instruments and concert spaces should be amply provided to young people in all the poorest neighborhoods in the US. Artistic expression can be a dynamic tool of social expression and mutual understanding.

Camille Paglia.

You’re an atheist, but you got schooled in the Catholic church. That’s the institution where you developed a sense of visual culture as a kid, right?
Yes. The first works of art that I ever saw were the gorgeous stained-glass windows and polychrome statues of saints at my baptismal church of St. Anthony of Padua in the factory town of Endicott, New York. That experience is still being shared by young people in Latin Catholic parishes everywhere—from Italy and Spain to Mexico and Argentina. But US Catholic churches have slowly, snobbishly divested themselves of immigrant traces. Your average Catholic church here now looks as bland and generic as an airport terminal. It’s a foolish aping of the Protestant plain style—but with less taste and rational symmetry.

And the church is in decline. So where can young people look to develop aesthetic sensitivity in secular society?
The internet is a tremendous tool because the world’s images are on it. But young people need a guide to help them find those art works. That’s a process I’ve tried to begin with Glittering Images.

Talking of which, there’s no Asian, Latin American or (outside of Ancient Egypt) African art history in the book. No Ukiyo-e, no Qing Dynasty paintings, no Persian miniatures…
I would have loved to extend Glittering Images to world art, but the whole point was to produce a slim, inviting introduction to the history of art. As it was, a project that was supposed to take two years took five. Chronology and connectedness were also my goals. To leap around the world taking a bit from here and a bit from there would have just repeated that blobby style of pointillistic fragmentation that is the kneejerk mode of what is currently called “cultural studies”—but which is neither cultured nor studious.

A landscape painting from the Qing Dynasty.

And you’re trying to go in a different direction, away from fragmentation.
I am trying to demonstrate a coherent historical stream—the continuity of spiritual feeling from Egyptian tomb-painting to Mondrian and Jackson Pollock. I had considered using Japanese anime for the digital art chapter of the book, but it lacked the overwhelming operatic power and yes, seriousness of Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith. The British sculptor Henry Moore was almost included—and for that chapter I would have shown the greatChac-Mool statue from Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. When Moore saw a plaster cast of that statue in a small museum in Paris, it revolutionized his style and had a profound effect on modern art. At museum or art gallery venues on my book tour, I am showing a photo of the Chac-Mool, which is a knockout.

Now, you’re a feminist, but you have been critical of many of the movements and ideologies that constitute the feminist project. What are your hopes for feminism at this point in history?
The rebel feminism of the 1990s, inspired by Madonna, was a major correction of feminist ideology, which had become oppressively Stalinist. Feminism did not fail; it was merely its tyrannical cadre of cliquish leaders who had to be overthrown. The movement has always been cyclic. We are in a quiet period right now in the Western world, when all careers have been opened to women. But feminism is still desperately needed in Third World countries where women can be treated like chattel.

Does your own personal feminism, or dissident feminism as you have called it, play into the book?
The feminism in Glittering Images is in the variety of women who are featured as both artists and the subject of art—from an Egyptian queen seeking resurrection to the haggard Mary Magdalene or a tragic modern Magdalene, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe. My climax is the African-American photographer Renee Cox, who poses as a dominatrix superheroine on the Statue of Liberty and represents the pro-sex, pro-art, pro-beauty feminism, which has triumphed.

And, speaking of awesome ladies like Renee Cox, you have mentioned a few times that The Real Housewives of New Jersey is amazing and that The Sopranos sucks. Lorraine Bracco called you “fucking crazy.”
I guess Lorraine Bracco is so addicted to flattery of her soporific and specious acting in The Sopranos that a little chill breeze from the real world comes as a big shock. The Sopranos was porn for the genteel Manhattan upper-middle-class, gazing uncomprehending across the river at the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. 

Sure. The issue is authenticity.
I’ve been working for nearly 30 years in Philadelphia, which shares a proletarian ethnic Italian culture with New Jersey. The Real Housewives of New Jersey really captures it. I could never watch The Sopranos for more than two minutes because it was so distorted with condescending, ham-handed fakery.

You say Fluxus and other “anti-art” movements imperiled the reputation of art, especially in the United States. Tell me why “anti-art” is bad.
Anti-art movements are vital when there is actually an art establishment that has cultural weight and power. But when society is ruled by popular culture, as it is now, anti-art gestures serve no purpose whatever and are positively destructive. I was an early apostle of pop—it was one reason most professors didn’t take me seriously at the Yale Graduate School when I arrived in 1968—but I certainly never wanted pop to be the dominant force in America. Pop itself is weakened when art is weak. Artistic standards aren’t always subjective. I believe in principles of quality in every sphere, including professional football!

Wait, you don’t get art? Read these:

I Don’t “Get” Art 

I Still Don’t “Get” Art 

OK, Do It: Teach Me How to “Get” Art 

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