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TCW’s holiday reads: Paglia, giving art both barrels


Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars by Camille Paglia (Penguin Random House USA)

FOR a defence of the Christian basis of Western culture, who better to turn to than a pagan lesbian feminist? Camille Paglia, acerbic cultural commentator and professor of liberal arts at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, is known for not pulling her punches. Her staccato Woody Woodpecker delivery is familiar on YouTube. When it comes to print she is more considered, but no less incisive.

In Glittering Images she is in good form, trenchantly making the case that religion and God are fundamental to Western culture and art, and that if we have no knowledge of either we must inevitably fail to understand the art around us.

In short but perceptive essays on 29 works of art as varied as Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and George Lucas’s Revenge of the Sith she makes the point that there has to be something deeper in a work than mere acceptability to an isolated cultural elite. For Paglia, the spiritual quest is what defines all great art.

She mourns the almost total demise of cultural understanding of Christianity in the West: ‘If you are an artist and you don’t recognise the name of Moses then the West is dead. It’s over. It has committed suicide.’

The argument of this slim volume is the important one that the progressive assault on religion has taken its toll on art. ‘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.’

She spares no one in her defence of art. She lets rip with both barrels. Of the Left she says, ‘Nothing is more hackneyed than the liberal dogma that shock value confers automatic importance on an art work.’ Conservatives are not spared either: ‘Despite their trumpet call for a return of education to the Western canon, they have behaved like provincial philistines when it comes to the visual arts.’

You won’t agree with every conclusion of Paglia, but you will be forced to interact with this perceptive and entertaining critic of modern culture.

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Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Campbell is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Stirlingshire. He blogs at A Grain of Sand.

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