My Interview With Camille Paglia: The Outtakes

Earlier this fall, I spent an afternoon with Camille Paglia at the Philadelphia Museum of Art to talk about her new bookGlittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. For Paglia, the art world is in spiritual crisis—it has not had a new idea in years. Why? Because it sneers at religion. Paglia thinks that the spiritual quest defines all great art, as I explain in my profile of her, which was just published in The Daily Beast/Newsweek:

For Paglia, the spiritual quest defines all great art—all art that lasts. But in our secular age, the liberal crusade against religion has also taken a toll on art. “Sneering at religion is juvenile, symptomatic of a stunted imagination,” Paglia writes. “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.” Historically the great art of the West has had religious themes, either explicit or implicit. “The Bible, the basis for so much great art, moves deeper than anything coming out of the culture today,” Paglia says. As a result of its spiritual bankruptcy, art is losing its prominence in our culture. “Art makes news today,” she writes, “only when a painting is stolen or auctioned at a record price.”

Click here to read the full thing. Also, below are some excerpts that either didn’t make it into my piece or made it in in truncated form. I’m pasting them here for the die-hard Paglia fans!

On the art world’s spiritual crisis: 

Paglia told me two stories that highlighted the state of the art world today. Both are in my profile piece of her, but here are the fuller versions of those stories.

In the late 1980s, Paglia taught an introductory art history course to freshmen called Arts and Civilization. It covered art from antiquity to the present day (“I am very sorry that course was abandoned—thanks to complaints from the narrow specialists in the Liberal Arts department who didn’t want to teach outside their degree areas,” jibes Paglia.) When it came time to cover the Renaissance, Paglia decided to introduce her students to Michelangelo’s two-part panel from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, “Temptation and Expulsion from the Garden,” a memorable work that she nearly included in Glittering Images. After Paglia’s lecture on this surreal scene from the book of Genesis, a woman student approached the professor. In Paglia’s telling, this student “cheerfully said that she was so happy to learn about that because she had always heard about Adam and Eve but never knew what they referred to!”

More recently, in the early 2000s, Paglia was teaching a course that she founded in the eighties, Art of Song Lyrics, which was directed at musicians. The course covered arias, blues, lieder, and “negro spirituals.” For the spirituals, she taught a song called “Go Down, Moses.” It describes the scene from Exodus 7:16: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me.” The song, once an anthem for fugitive slaves who fought for the Union in the Civil War, has gone on to have a life of its own in the popular culture. Louis Armstrong and Paul Robeson both covered the song, William Faulkner named his 1942 novel after it, and it was featured twice in Will Smith’s comedy from the nineties, the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Paglia played the song and distributed the lyric sheet for her students to review…

When Israel was in Egypt’s land: Let my people go,

Oppress’d so hard they could not stand, Let my People go.

Go down, Moses,

Way down in Egypt’s land,

Tell old Pharaoh,

Let my people go.

But as the students read these words, and as Paglia talked them through the spiritual, there was something wrong. The students were not connecting with the song. “It was hard going,” she explains. “There was a disconnect as I kept talking and talking. I felt I was struggling, and I didn’t know why. And then it struck me with horror that of a class of twenty-five students, only two seemed to recognize the name ‘Moses’ and understand what I was saying—and they were African-American students.” A few others had heard the name “Moses” before, but it was clear that they did not know his story of bondage in Egypt or anything about his role as the liberator of the Jews.

“They did not know who he was,” she tells me in disbelief. “If you are an artist and you don’t recognize the name of ‘Moses,’ then the West is dead. It’s over. It has committed suicide.”

On Christopher Hitchens:

I distinctly remember Paglia stopping at one point in the museum to go on, at length, about how much she despises Christopher Hitchens. Here is what appears in my piece:

While she is still more than willing to dig into what is left of the feminist movement—“feminism today is anti-intellectual” and “defined by paranoia,” she says—these days, she directs the venom of her sharp tongue to the dogmatic champions of secularism, liberals who narrow-mindedly dismiss religion and God. There is one, in particular, whom she cannot stand: the late Christopher Hitchens—like her, a libertarian-minded atheist. The key difference between the two is that he despised religion and God while Paglia respects both and thinks they are funda­mental to Western culture and art. Paglia calls Hitchens “a sybaritic narcissist committed to no real ideas outside his personal advancement.”

Here is what doesn’t: Paglia first met Hitchens in the 1990s when she was participating in a panel on the culture wars that Hitchens moderated. “Hitchens was a total ass—nasty, devious, chaotic, and slippery in his thinking,”Paglia recalls. “I despised Hitchens from that point forth. He was glib—not at all brilliant or knowledgeable.”

Paglia calls Hitchens as “ethically contemptible” and gets nearly apoplectic when she thinks about the chorus of praise that emerged in the wake of Hitchens’s death. “Christopher Hitchens,” she begins, “is a person who poisoned himself and killed himself with alcohol and cigarettes, a person who partied his whole life, who couldn’t stand before a crowd without being drunk—this is not a model of how to live.”

She goes on to say, “As an atheist, I am embarrassed that he called himself an atheist. He knew nothing about religion. If an intellectual wants to be taken seriously, he must study religion.” Hitchens, to Paglia, was not the public intellectual he fancied himself as. His superficial understanding of monotheistic faiths rendered him “a second-rate journalist, and that’s it!” Referring to his 2007 book God Is Not Great, an atheistic screed, she says “he just talked his way through that book like he talked his way through everything else.”

“Let our legacies be judged by these two statements,” Paglia tells me. “For Hitchens, ‘God is not great.’ For me, God is man’s greatest idea.” Paglia first declared that “God is man’s greatest idea” in Sexual Personae. “It was the greatest sentence I ever wrote,” she says, as she has said many times before.

On Piet Mondrian, the artist as mystic:

One of Paglia’s themes in Glittering Images is that all the great artists, including abstract artists, were spiritual seekers. I mention Jackson Pollock in the piece, but she also devotes a chapter of her book to the artist-mystic Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), the Dutch painter of “Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow.”

Mondrian was raised in a strict Calvinist household, but when he was 37, he joined the Theosophical Society, an esoteric spiritual movement with Eastern influences (Pollock was also influenced by theosophy, she points out). Mondrian’s quest for the divine pervaded his work, which underwent a major transformation from realism to clean and symmetrical abstraction. Writing in the New Criterion in 1995, the late art critic Hilton Kramer asked why Mondrian abandoned realism for pure abstraction. “What, exactly,” Kramer wrote, “did Mondrian believe that he had achieved? In any attempt to address this question, we are obliged to deal with the fact that abstract art—and not only Mondrian’s—was born of an alliance of aesthetics and mysticism.” Though Mondrian’s grid art has been criticized for its sterility, a subtle religiosity runs through his iconic works, which are defined by horizontal and vertical lines that intersect at right angles, “a multiplicity of crosses,” as he called them. The horizontal lines, as Paglia notes in her chapter titled “Romance of the Grid,” represent the sea and the female elements, while the vertical lines represented spirituality and the masculine principle. “The artist is asexual,” Mondrian wrote, a “spiritual hermaphrodite.”

That’s all for now! If you still need more Paglia in your life, be sure to check out the Acculturated Podcast.

  1. Kermadec

    Thanks for the Hitchins anecdotes, my gut feels entirely vindicated.

    Religions cultured despisers these days are generally despicable and not very cultured.

  2. crizzyboo

    Thanks so much for the extra goodies! I’m a big Paglia fan, went through withdrawal while she was writing her book… now that it’s finished it’s nice to see her back in action, feisty as ever.

  3. Matede

    I never heard of Camile Paglia before i heard your podcast. I was blown away. I have been thinking about how modern feminism has almost completely cut out motherhood, how the movement has been trying to deny a woman’s basic nature for so many years and to the detriment of many women my age or younger (I’m 34). when I heard Paglia’s statements, I felt like Wow someone IS talking about this. I sent your podcast to my mother who I have had many conversations about this.

    Thank you for introducing me to her I’m going to read Sexual Persona to get more of her insights.

  4. Nick Stuart

    Listened to the Acculturated Podcast, and have heard several other interviews with Paglia on the subject of her new book. In all of them she mentioned one of the audiences she wrote for is the homeschooling mom. As a former elementary art teacher, and helper to my wife as she homeschooled our 5 kids K-12, I think that’s great.

    Regrettably I can think of few volumes less likely to find their way to the hands of typical homeschooling moms, unless Prof. Paglia actively markets to them. Advertising in all the homeschool magazines and websites might make sense.

    Or picture this, she adds some book tour stops at the homeschool curriculum fairs that dot the landscape every spring. It would no doubt be a bracing cross-cultural experience. She could even wear a denim jumper to blend in.

  5. Scarlet Pimpernel

    Paglia’s argument has interesting implications for discussions about religious establishment.  It implies that non-religious education is impossible.  It also implies that if the government may fund museums it may also fund churches. That’s not a surprise. The museum was created to replace the spiritual place the church formerly has occupies in the West.

  6. Frozen Chosen

    As a Christian I obviously would take issue with much of what Paglia says but I do think she is an original thinker and a breath of fresh air, certainly as far as most of academia goes.

    It’s refreshing to see an atheist who is not hell bent on attacking religion.  Paglia is correct that such a course of action greatly diminishes a person. 

    We do not need to agree with people of different religions or atheists but we can certainly be respectful of their beliefs.  I would never think to attack anyone who believed differently than I do, which is what made Hitchens very overrated in my book and Paglia’s as well, evidently.

  7. Astonishing

    Okay, I’m a simpleton from the provinces (and I haven’t read Paglia’s latest book), but can’t imagine out how a declared and confirmed atheist championing religion advances belief in God (or gods), which seems to me necessary for the existence of religion as something more than empty ritual.

    So there’s something devilishly mocking in her, “God is man’s greatest idea.” But it’s a small devil because Paglia’s great idea is but a very partial restatement of Nietzsche’s much more comprehensive declaration, and only slightly more insightful than the common and unoriginal assertion that “man invented God.” 

    Nevertheless, Paglia’s formulation is insidiously more damaging to religion than Hitchens’ direct attack. Hitchen’s says, “God does not exist.” Paglia’s says, “God does not exist, but we (or rather, you) should pretend he does.” But we cannot pretend so well when she reminds us we are pretending. Or if we can pretend, then the pretense requires an effort of will against truth that surely can’t be healthy for a person or a society.

  8. Grendel

    I listened to the podcast with Paglia.  You should have let it run two hours, so she wouldn’t have to talk so fast.  

    She and Florence King are two of my favorite cultural commentators.  (Two lesbian atheists.  Go figure.)  Both are women of the West.  They value Western (Judeo-Greco-Christian) Civilization as an unparalleled human achievement.   They also share a gimlet-eyed intolerance for the tawdry, dishonest, and self-indulgent.

    Consider Paglia and Andres Serrano.  Palgia left the Catholicism she was raised in, but is apparently without bitterness.  She knows that  Christendom inspired artists to rise out of themselves to tremendous aesthetic achievements.  Aesthetics is what she is interested in, and she won’t turn her back on it.

    Andres Serrano and his mother were Catholic for about 15 minutes when he was a teenager.  When he got to art school, he found he had no artist talent, so he started making constructions and photographing them.  He appropriates Catholic iconography because the Church is so powerful,  ”and it makes me feel less crappy about myself to piss on it” he doesn’t add.

    In other words, Palgia celebrates Christendom for what she values.  Serrano is a parasite.

  9. Gödel
    Grendel: I listened to the podcast with Paglia.  You should have let it run two hours, so she wouldn’t have to talk so fast. 

    I guess that was your first listen to Dr. Paglia, because if it weren’t, you’d know she talks that fast whether she needs to or not. :-) And God bless her (whether she believes in Him or not) for her intellectual honesty, knowing who she is and how she got there, and defending that against what must be overwhelming opposition from “her own side.”

  10. Ansonia

    If Ms Paglia had met Christopher Hitchens for the first time in the last year of his life, I wonder if she wouldn’t have had a better opinion of him. I also wonder what she thinks of his Vanity Fair essay : When the King Saved God. It’s about the importance of the King James translation of the Bible to our language and culture. Did anyone else on Ricochet read it?

  11. Grendel
    Ansonia: …I also wonder what she thinks of his Vanity Fair essay : “When the King Saved God”. It’s about the importance of the King James translation of the Bible to our language and culture. What does anyone on Ricochet think of this essay? 

    How should we regard it in view of Hitchen’ s”The New Commandments“, published a year and a month earlier in the same venue, where he is at his ignorant, parochial, not-as-amusing-as-he-would-like-to-be village-atheist best.

    I haven’t read the King James essay yet, but it should not surprise me that he recognizes how significant it has been in the development of the English language.  Language is, after all, what he is concerned with.

    But compare Paglia and Hitchens.  She can personally sever connection with the Church, but celebrate its contributions to what she values without denigrating it.  He may value the KJV (corrected from “RSV”) linguistically (a kind of Whiggish position), but cannot resist right off demoting God in the title.  What further snarkiness lies ahead?

    Unlike Paglia and David Berlinski, Hitchens is not a man of the West.  

  12. Duane Oyen

    Seeing this and going back to the podcast, how did you ever get a word in edgewise?  Camille is a machine gun of non-stop words!

  13. Ansonia
    Grendel, it’s only about 3 pages. Why not read it and then tell me why it’s horrible ? I won’t say it isn’t snarky about Catholicism, but….well…I’m probably imagining this but, while reading it, I had a sense that he wrote this essay with less confidence in his atheism, and also considerably more appreciation for his culture, than he had ever experienced or conveyed earlier in his adult life. I don’t think Hitchens liked the RSV at all.
  14. Grendel
    Ansonia: … tell me why it’s horrible ? I won’t say it isn’t snarky . . . but … I had a sense that he was writing with less confidence in his atheism,…. …I don’t think Hitchens liked the RSV at all. 

    Sorry.  I ignorantly wrote RSV for KJV.  Tho I don’t know why Hitchens would have disliked the latter.

    Hitchens starts by titling his essay to say exactly the opposite of a main point of the essay.  Rather, the translators, sensitive to the stresses that challenged James I, produced the

    “Authorized” or “King James” version .  This was a fairly conservative attempt to stabilize the Crown and the kingdom, heal the breach between competing English and Scottish Christian sects, and bind the majesty of the King to his devout people. . . . The need was for a tempered version of God’s word that engendered compromise and a sense of protection.

    It was all political, Thomas More was a bastard, and >70% of the KJV was Tyndale’s.  Vintage Hitchens.  He couldn’t have lost confidence in his atheism, because he propped it up with its antithesis, the Hitchens’ Special Version, a Scriptural religion that never existed, and that he never abandoned.

  15. MLH

     A bit off topic: Melvyn Bragg wrote an entire book on the impact of the KJV: The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011

    I don’t know anything about his political or religious beliefs but he seems to admire The Book of Books. 

  16. Ansonia

    Grendel, Thank you for taking time to read the essay and share your view of it.

  17. nonobadpony

    Camille is my favorite liberal.  She does not preach the liberal dogma, instead she thinks about issues.     I became a fan of Paglia in 2008  when she was the only Democrat who wrote honestly about Sarah Palin: 

    I like Sarah Palin, and I’ve heartily enjoyed her arrival on the national stage. As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is — and quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma. So she doesn’t speak the King’s English — big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist. I stand on what I said (as a staunch pro-choice advocate) in my last two columns — that Palin as a pro-life wife, mother and ambitious professional represents the next big shift in feminism. Pro-life women will save feminism by expanding it, particularly into the more traditional Third World.

     

  18. Grendel
    nonobadpony: Camille is my favorite liberal.  She does not preach the liberal dogma, instead she thinks about issues.     I became a fan of Paglia …  when she was the only Democrat who wrote honestly about Sarah Palin: 

    I like Sarah Palin, and I’ve heartily enjoyed her arrival on the national stage. As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is — and quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma. So she doesn’t speak the King’s English — big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist. I stand on what I said (as a staunch pro-choice advocate) in my last two columns — that Palin as a pro-life wife, mother and ambitious professional represents the next big shift in feminism. Pro-life women will save feminism by expanding it, particularly into the more traditional Third World.

    Oh, yeah.  Paglia doesn’t just think outside the box.  She walks around the corner and catches the cross-town bus.

  19. Zafar

    Thanks Emily – I love Camille Paglia.  Would putting in a request that you interview Ayaan Hirsi Ali be excessive? (Or off topic?)

  20. Franco

    Love me some Paglia! I read Sexual Personae (well most of it that I could understand) when it came out and was blown away. I love her rapid speech too. Good of you to let her rip. There are some women out there who remind me that women can be smarter and have bigger cahones than men and she is one of them along with Ayn Rand, and Orianna Fallaci. 

    But Paglia isn’t very smart politically. She is a life-long Democrat, holding on to a tradition that is long passed. She is voting from nostalgia and sentiment, not for her basic beliefs.

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