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Look and Learn

Camille Paglia on the best of the West.

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By ELISE PASSAMANI
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These statuesque demoiselles, crowding the flat picture plane, are Picasso’s carnal Muses, patrons of his genius and titanic productivity. (He left fifty thousand works in a vast range of genres and materials.) In real life, one woman would never be enough for him. .  .  . Mutating through many faces, they are the models for the restlessly mercurial styles of his long career. He cannot conquer them, but their intense gaze conveys that they are choosing him, and only him.

Another, less well-known entry is Tamara de Lempicka’s elegant portrait of Doctor Boucard (1929). Explaining the artist’s small museum presence, Paglia writes:

Most of her paintings are privately owned, often by movie stars, which has compromised her reputation among art critics. Performers identify with the theatricality of her portraits, which confer glamour and status. In contrast, the favorite woman artist of mainstream feminism is Frida Kahlo, because of her folkloric themes, her militant Communism, her marital humiliations, and her ailments, accidents, and surgeries, which she graphically detailed in grisly paintings of symbolic martyrdom.

In her last essay, Paglia claims that “no one has closed the gap between art and technology more successfully than George Lucas.” The only work of film she includes is the volcanic duel between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end of Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (2005). The scenery is Lucas’s version of hell, and Paglia lauds it as “sublime elemental poetry.” The special effects, craftsmanship, and choreography that went into filming this one particular scene—including specially shot footage of Mount Etna erupting—are staggering. It ends as Anakin Skywalker “crawls like a serpent with demonic yellow eyes before he catches fire and is half-incinerated,” all but finishing the character’s metamorphosis into Darth Vader.

It is curious that Camille Paglia deems George Lucas to be the “world’s greatest living artist,” even when he has purveyed a good deal of the kind of “constant flashing or strobing” effect that she warns “fatigues the eye and may impede small children’s cognitive development.” Surely this conflict isn’t an accident, but is rather the strongest aesthetic judgment she makes in the entire book, and can be read as a scathing indictment of contemporary art.

Paglia’s concerns about the well-being and teaching of children echo what Edith Wharton wrote on the same subject over a century ago in her first book, The Decoration of Houses (1897). Although Wharton couldn’t have imagined the animation and video games that now clamor for our attention, she insisted of rooms designed for children: Above all, the walls should not be overcrowded. The importance of preserving in the school-room bare wall-spaces of uniform tint has hitherto been little considered; but teachers are beginning to understand the value of these spaces in communicating to the child’s brain a sense of repose which diminishes mental and physical restlessness.

Paglia herself writes that “the odd class field trip to a museum, even if one is within reach, is inadequate,” mirroring Wharton’s assertion, “Parents may conscientiously send their children to galleries and museums, but unless the child can find some point of contact between its own surroundings and the contents of the galleries, the interest excited by the pictures and statues will be short-lived and ineffectual.”

Glittering Images represents such a point of contact. The numerous color reproductions are so enchanting that they encourage you to pause and linger, to flip backwards and forwards between the pages for pure enjoyment. It is wonderful as a picture book for schoolchildren, regardless of their reading level. Paglia surely had this in mind when assembling the illustrations: “All parents who can afford it should have at least one art book lying around the house for children to encounter on their own.” And again, Edith Wharton would agree: “To teach a child to distinguish between a good and a bad painting, a well or an ill--modeled statue,” she wrote, “will at least develop those habits of observation and comparison that are the base of all sound judgments.”

Elise Passamani is a graduate student at St. John's College, Oxford.

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