Monday, December 12, 2016

Culturist Art Criticism and the Salvation of the West

Twenty-five years ago Camille Paglia cured me of veganism.  Her amazing art history book, ‘Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertitti to Emily Dickinson,’ argued that art criticism needs passion, violence and sex, not PC censorship.  In a side note, she said vegetarians are out-of-touch with nature because they work for a clean, sinless world; real nature worshippers feel its cruelty.  I love Camille Paglia. 

However, this article will harshly criticize Paglia’s newest art survey book, ‘Glittering Images.’  And you may be thinking, “Who cares? I’m into politics, not art.” But, appreciating art is central to Western survival.  Multiculturalists tell us that the West has no core traditional culture to protect and promote. Western art refutes that and can serve as a guide to our cultural revitalization. To make this point firmer, the article will contrast Paglia’s work to Kenneth Clark’s marvelous culturist 1969 BBC survey of Western art, ‘Civilisation.’

The very title of Paglia’s ‘Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars,’ gives away its weakness. Starting in Egypt makes her book explicitly globalist.  Globalism is the flipside of multiculturalism, it says Western culture is not particular to the West and so not really Western. Globalism undermines our enjoyment of the art.  When I see the Sistine Chapel or any other Western masterpiece, I am proud, because my civilization produced it.  And, as I am indelibly Western, Western masterpieces inspire me personally.  When presented as global, Western art is not mine, it alienates, rather than inspires, me. 

Paglia discusses the Acropolis and some Greek pieces.  And, she speculates as to what they might have meant to Greek culture. But, we’re not told what they mean to us, collectively, today.  Culturist art criticism, to have an impact, must speak to our present cultural crisis.  We can see the potential and her failure in her coverage of the icon of Saint John Crysostom.   Icons are, she tells us, “sacred images that functioned as protectors of people and cities. In portable wooden form, icons were carried by armies into battles.”[i]  We learn that, “The icon endorsees a fanatical devotion to God’s word, a renunciation of pleasure and mortification of the body.”[ii] That we see in John Crysostom’s “intensity of gaze.” Good stuff!

But, Paglia only incidentally mentions that the icon sits in the Haga Sophia – a church that was converted into a mosque when the Muslims sacked Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire.  From a culturist point of view, the West and Islam are still battling.  This means Crysostom’s icon should still fill us with intensity and encourage us to battle for the West.  She discusses the suppression of icons by the church, but never mentions that ’The Byzantine encounter with Islam likely played a role” in this.[iii]  She provides zero culturist context.  Thus the icon is just a relic of a long disappeared ancient world rather than an icon to our epic struggle for survival.

Paglia gives us some great insight into the pieces she has chosen.  For example, I love the idea that Titians’ Venus with a mirror “blurs the lines between the erotic and the maternal. Perhaps revealing the deepest truth about heterosexuality.”  But, then she doesn’t ask for a culturist interpretation.  I mean, if fading beauty is joined to fertility, then perhaps sex is not a toy; perhaps sex is more profound and pathos laden than our salacious, promiscuous advertising culture lets on.  Perhaps the West needs to take a more realistic look at life, death and fertility.  This would be a moral, culturist reading.  But for Paglia, art glitters, but it doesn’t speak to the management of our civilization.

Furthermore, Titian’s painting would mean more if occasionally contrasted with Islam’s ban of art and Asia’s boring, static art.  The West is the civilization that moves, creates and ponders tumultuous questions about beauty, maternity and mortality.  Asian art barely has people in it.  This is a very Western painting.  We need to see it’s philosophical query as a part of our glory!

Paglia’s globalism is in stark contrast to the Kenneth Clark’s aforementioned marvelous culturist BBC series, ‘Civilisation.’  His title is culturist. As it is an art history series, his title announces that art and civilization reinforce each other. The title of the first episode, “The Skin of our Teeth,” refers to the West’s precarious survival after the collapse of Rome.  Clark explores this theme in order to make us appreciate the West’s existence.  Fantastically, in a shining moment of culturist clarity, when discussing the Western invention of perspective, Clark suddenly stops, pauses and asks, “But, has it anything to do with civilization?”[iv] (Ep. 4)  This is a question, Paglia should ask of art. 

For a supreme treat, take a listen to Clark’s culturist discussion of Michelangelo’s iconic statue, David.  He tells us that, David’s defiant face, “involves a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we usually call civilized life. It’s the enemy of happiness.” And, he notes that though we may not think of these combative attitudes as civilized, in the end, “civilization depends on man extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost.” This, he continues, is what makes David a high point for “ Western man.”[v]  By way of contrast, Paglia tells us that Egypt’s stagnation resulted from its ‘harsh desert environment.’[vi] Economic determinism is always behind leftist thought. Ideas being paramount is a culturist conviction.  Their vantage point on art entertains, ours builds civilizations. 

All surveys of Western art must, at some point, discuss our dropping classical realism in favor of increasingly abstract modern art. In one of his relentless culturist gems, Clark tells us, "All the great civilizations have seen themselves as part of history. Both as heirs and heirs transmitters." (ep. 4)  Modernism, with its freeze on the past, rejects Clark’s fundamental insight.  This is likely why he only discusses modernism in the last episode of his series, and then only sparingly, despondently, behind the theme of, the ‘triumphant materialism.’  In contrast, Paglia transitions to modernism less than half way through her book.  There she writes, the “Salon juries in Paris expected important subjects from painting – ancient myths, Bible stories, glorious episodes of French history in polished neoclassical style.”[vii]  Thus, parroting modern art history orthodoxy, she rejects pre-modern art.

But, as orthodox as Paglia is, she is edgy and iconoclastic enough to have reservations about modernism.  She admits that, in comparison to what had come before, “Impressionist pictures . . . seemed pointless.” Quite. And, in her trademark quippy tone Paglia tells us that impressionism fits well in ‘hotels, offices, and doctors’ waiting rooms.”[viii] Yes, they fit in offices and hotels as they help convince ill-educated globalists that they belong to no particular civilization, thus easing their conscience as they sell out their civilization’s economic basis.  Modern art is needed in doctor’s offices, because in an increasingly diversified West, having overtly Western icons could offend the cultural outsiders in our land.

But, modern art is not only unworthy of the West, it is increasingly anti-Western.  We see this in Paglia’s unfortunate inclusion of the horrid, ‘Chillin’ with Liberty.’  This photoshopped complaint features a female black character sitting on top of the Statue of Liberty’s head.  In a fit of noxious virtue signaling, Paglia writes the black woman’s “masked face and penetrating eyes suggests she is contemplating and transcending centuries of atrocity and suffering.”  She says the black woman, “is welcoming the future, but forgetting nothing.”  Forgetting nothing, indeed.  Being a culturist art historian, I can say what the Puritans would say; liberty cannot be won by complaining or ‘chillin.’  The inclusion of this piece marks the saddest moment of Paglia’s book.

The final piece from Paglia’s book that I will consider is Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.  (Though, as she notes, he just called it, ‘My brothel.’) Insightfully, she says it recapitulates art history.  The figure on the left represents Egyptian art, then several western works are referenced, finally, on the right, we see a reference to “scarified tribal masks from Africa.”[ix] The West’s history is progressive.  We are better than stupid Old World cultures.  Connecting us to Egypt severs us from our roots.  And, saying our art history culminates in Africa, in any way shape or form, is revolting, multicultural, globalist blasphemy.   

Lastly, two points that Paglia does not discuss:

First, we have a history of culturist art criticism to revive.  Plato was a culturist art critic.  Separating moral art from immoral art corresponded to his main criticism of life.  Matthew Arnold, (1822 – 1888), the first person to be called a ‘culturist’ practicing ‘culturism,’ created a great body of work showing how culture could keep the West from anarchy.  And, of course, Kenneth Clark was a major culturist art critic. We have a long tradition of culturist art criticism to weave into our narrative. 

Secondly, whenever you discuss art with someone, you must bring up the Sistine chapel.  It destroys the multicultural myth that we have no core culture. It undermines the narrative wherein Western history consists of nothing but material exploitation and horror. It never fails to inspire.  Moreover, comparing modern works to the Chapel is a sure guide to estimating whether a work is a symptom of the West’s decline or rebirth.

[i] Paglia, Camille, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Arts from Egypt to Star Wars, (New York: Pantheon, 2012), 35.
[ii] Paglia, Camille, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Arts from Egypt to Star Wars, (New York: Pantheon, 2012), 37.
[iii] Woods, Jr., Thomas, E., How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2005), 116.
[iv] Clark, Kenneth, writer / narrator, Civilisation, Man: The Measure of All Things, Episode 4. BBC, 1969,
[v] Clark, Kenneth, writer / narrator, Civilisation, The Artist as Hero, Episode 5. BBC, 1969,
[vi] Paglia, Camille, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Arts from Egypt to Star Wars, (New York: Pantheon, 2012), 8.
[vii] Paglia, Camille, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Arts from Egypt to Star Wars, (New York: Pantheon, 2012), 97.
[viii] Paglia, Camille, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Arts from Egypt to Star Wars, (New York: Pantheon, 2012), 97.
[ix] Paglia, Camille, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Arts from Egypt to Star Wars, (New York: Pantheon, 2012), 105.