Camille Paglia's 'Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars' (2012) is her follow-up to 'Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems' (2006), the author's disastrous (and unnecessary) attempt to introduce and explain literary poetry to the general public.
'Glittering Images,' which is also intended for the same broad audience, addresses the visual arts, and is a more solid effort all around: the introduction alone is worth the price of the book, as it presents Paglia at her erudite, vibrant and perceptive best.
However, Paglia writes that "the artworks in this book were chosen to avoid overlap" with those presented in her first book, 'Sexual Personae: Art & Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson' (1990), which means that examples of "Stone Age, Egyptian, and Greek sculpture, as well as Renaissance, Romantic, Pre-Raphaelite, and Symbolist painting" are foolishly not included.
Thus, it's ironic that, visually, the mere twenty-nine works included are rather dull and uninteresting to look at, much less contemplated in silence in the manner Paglia recommends.
Earth tones predominate in plate after plate (Paglia notes that Mondrian hates green; Palgia seems to dislike it too), so that when the reader arrives at Monet's colorful, if still muted, 'Irises' on page 97, the painting comes as something of a shock to the senses: 'Irises' is certainly the only conventionally attractive painting found in the book, though the broad public still associates 'art' with what is 'pretty,' even 'decorative.'
'Glittering Images' starts off powerfully with Paglia tackling examples of Egyptian, Cycladic, Greek, and Roman art. The fairly brief accompanying essays are packed with information; each underscores the broad scope of Paglia's learning as well as her understanding of history, and places the work in question in a solid and readily understandable context.
But the book drops off almost immediately with plate 6, the Ninth century mosaic of Saint John Chrysostom from the Hagia Sophia Museum in Turkey.
The obvious problem of 'Glittering Images' is the selection of images included; for the volume to genuinely succeed, Paglia has to convince the reader why the images selected deserved to be included, and in this she fails in the majority of the essays (most of which are still of some interest in themselves).
It appears as though Paglia did not want to include works of art with which the public might be overly familiar; but if this is so, why are Picasso's 'Les Demoiselles d' Avignon' and Warhol's 'Marilyn Diptych' here?
Though there are no works by, for example, Giotto, Bruegel, Bosch, Durer, Gainsborough, Blake, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Turner, de Chirico, Matisse, Whistler, Munch, Schiele, or the Fauve school, Paglia includes Tamara de Lempicka's 'Portrait of Doctor Boucard'?
Rather hilariously, the entire 19th century is represented in just three works.
Does Bronzino's lackluster 'Portrait of Andrea Doria as Neptune' (1530) really belong in a survey of Western art which sums up its subject in twenty nine works?
Why didn't Paglia press for an even fifty plates and thus make 'Glittering Images' genuinely comprehensive, or at least more so?
Though any reader familiar with Paglia's tastes will understand why she included Renee Cox's 'Chillin with Liberty,' once again Paglia fails to make the case for its inclusion, and the rambling accompanying essay about performance art (which includes "Stelarc" being suspended "by eighteen flesh hooks over a New York street" and later having "a human ear surgically attached to the inside of his left arm") doesn't assist her cause.
Sadly, the last essay, 'Red River,' is devoted to 'Star Wars' creator George Lucas and the climatic scene from his 'Revenge of the Sith' (2005). Again, while Paglia might be able to convince her audience that Lucas is "the greatest artist of our time," especially due to his technological breakthroughs in filmmaking, her essay simply does not. Though the idea is daring and the essay interesting, it ultimately concludes the book on a flat, even sour, note.
Paglia is an amazing intellectual talent, one far too talented to be wasting time on tepid, half-hearted efforts like this and 'Break, Blow, Burn.'
Over the decades, Paglia has publicly excoriated Germaine Greer and Susan Sontag for failing to live up to their early potential as writers and as feminist writers, but the exactly same thing has become true of Paglia. Has she noticed the rather hard and ugly irony of this, regardless of the fact that she teaches full time? Paglia made fun of superfluous late Sontag novels like 'The Volcano Lover' (1992), but surely 'Break, Blow, Burn' is its equivalent.
Long after loudly announcing that Volume II of 'Sexual Personae,' which would address the 20th century, would make the combined book "the longest ever written by a woman," Paglia finally admitted the second volume had been mysteriously cancelled, even though she had intimated that it was already written and in the process of being edited for publication. Admirers of her work, who waited faithfully for the second volume for years, deserve a fuller explanation.
What Paglia can bring to the world is the brilliance of the flawed but still highly impressive 'Sexual Personae' and its cancelled preface, the scathing 'Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe In the Hour of the Wolf' (1991), and 'No Law in the Arena' from 'Vamps & Tramps' (1994). Paglia hasn't written comprehensively about the 21st century since it has arrived: opportunities for her insight are everywhere (as we see in the present book's preface). In a lighter vein, even Paglia's witty Salon.com columns would be welcomed in collected form.
The final verdict on 'Glittering Images' can be deduced by a simple test: is the potential reader or buyer, while casually flipping through it, seduced and intrigued by what he or she sees? The answer is plain: No, he is not, not even slightly, and thus 'Glittering Images' fails on the most fundamental level.