Far from an attack on Western tradition, Glittering Images seeks to defend and expand it. (Paglia will discuss the book Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia.)
Paglia writes rhapsodically of art's power to reorient us to our "duties and ethical concerns." She speaks of how great works of art enrich "the spiritual dimension of life" and answer our metaphysical quandaries. She discusses what makes works of art endure through the ages.
The self-professed atheist even defends religion as a "vast symbol system containing deep truths about human existence."
Is this the same Camille Paglia who declared in 1990 that Madonna was "the real future of feminism"?
Of course, Paglia isn't afraid of being provocative, even confrontational. Glittering Images, which includes chapters on such titans as Titian, Manet, Picasso, and Jackson Pollock, concludes with a glowing review of George Lucas' 2005 film, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
Lucas, Paglia says during an interview, is the "world's greatest living artist in any field," adding impishly, "This is a controversial position."
Paglia, 65, looked uncomfortable seated during a recent visit to her intellectual home for the last 18 years, the University of the Arts, where she is university professor of humanities and media studies. ("I always teach standing up," she says.)
She was frenetic, yet agile and self-possessed. One of the most erudite public intellectuals in America, she's a Formula 1 champ when it comes to talking. She's the Energizer Bunny, throwing out, bending, mending, weaving, and connecting ideas so rapidly, it's at times overwhelming to witness.
Limited to three to five pages, each self-contained essay in Glittering Images focuses on what Paglia calls "a representative work" from eras in Western art. Paglia provides historical context, along with the materials used by the artist, salient information about his or her life, and how the work fits in the history of art.
There are virtuoso discussions of well-known and not-so-famous works, including Donatello's Mary Magdalene, Agnolo Bronzino's Portrait of Andrea Doria as Neptune, Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat, Monet's Irises, and Warhol's Marilyn Diptych.
Her chapter on The Charioteer of Delphi, a Greek bronze figure from 475 B.C., notes that the winning charioteer's face is grave, serious, not exuberant, in keeping with the culture's valorization of introspection and its warning against hubris.
A rich discussion of Titian's Venus With a Mirror (circa 1555) has Paglia explain the painter's position in Venice as a successful proto-celebrity, who was hired by the crème de la crème of Venetian society. She compares the Florentine definition of beauty, as espoused by Botticelli ("tall and slim with long legs and small breasts"), and that of Titian. "In Venetian art, women are round, plush, and a bit indolent."
Why would Paglia include Lucas in such vaunted company?
"It was never my intention to bring him or movies in, but I was looking through contemporary art and couldn't find anything of value to include," Paglia said. She said the climactic volcano scene from Lucas' Revenge of the Sith caught her eye when it was shown one night on the cable channel Spike.
"I felt the power of this volcano, the passion of it, it was like opera," Paglia said. "I'm going, 'Oh my God!', and I would see it again and again and again. . . . And I thought . . . this is so much beyond anything else being done in contemporary arts, and I mean in any field."
Glittering Images serves as a companion volume to Paglia's 2005 book, Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems, a study of poetry from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell, which made a brief stop on the New York Times best-seller list.
Similar in format, each essay is written with a refreshing clarity few academics seem able - or as Paglia would say, willing - to master. Paglia said she wrote Glittering Images for a general audience.
"There is a craving in the general public for scholarly writing that is user-friendly," said Paglia, who bemoaned the dearth of cultural critics in America who reach out to the public.
"I believe it is the mission of the professor not to be in this ivory tower, but to be involved in public education," she said. "Humanities professors spend all their energy at conferences trying to impress each other instead of doing public lectures in their own towns. I think it's our duty to talk to the public."
Paglia said the public desperately needs to relearn how to see - to look critically at images - to survive an era drenched in visual information.
"You look everywhere and there's flash, flash, flash, a visual assault of bad images and commercials," she said. "The brain is in this . . . boiling turmoil of bad images. And it's polluting people's brains. No wonder people are taking all these antidepressants."
Learning to contemplate great art, Paglia writes in Glittering Images, refocuses and disciplines the mind.
The book also stands as a sharp attack on contemporary critics, who Paglia believes look at art only as it reflects its social context.
"They have this supercilious cynicism about art," Paglia said. "They've been trained to look at art in terms of its defects . . . what it reveals about power relations." She added dismissively, "It's all watered-down Marxism. It's not even real Marxism."
Paglia, who is a devotee of AM talk radio, said she hoped her books and lectures also spoke to conservatives who may have written off the arts as pretentious and false.
"I want to reach conservatives across the country who have dismissed the art world and tell them, 'You are right, the art world is full of snobs; you are right, the art world is full of fakes,' " she said.
"But there's also the history of art, and you should be introducing your children to it."
Why? What's the big deal?
"This," says Paglia, "is the history of humanity, these images."
Contact Tirdad Derakhshani
at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.