Earlier this fall, I spent an afternoon with Camille Paglia at the Philadelphia Museum of Art to talk about her new book, Glittering 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.”