At a first glance Glittering Images, starting from Egyptian art, going on through the centuries with major focus on twentieth century art and George Lucas’ Star War’s appears to be a useful introduction and overview to art history for first year university students.
The book is printed on high quality art paper in an elegant and readable typeface. It would look very nice as one of our famous, unread and untouched coffee table books, though it is smaller than most.
After the acknowledgments at the back of the book she writes, “No research assistants were used for this or any other of my books. Whatever errors may appear are entirely my own.” I wouldn’t want to read a book by anyone else substituting for her, given that she’s the “intellectual” of the world, and as she says, “I’m probably one of the last ones left”. The resulting book has twenty-nine chapters, plus the introduction (the best part). She is plain interesting and worth reading.
Starting from the middle of the book (as internet dependency has shrunk my attention span; an already short book of 202 pages seems shorter that way) with an essay entitled “City in Motion” about Edouard Manet and his painting At the Café’, Manet is quoted, “We are not in Rome, and we don’t want to go there. We are in Paris—let’s stay here.” This was thanks to a quarrel he had had with a male model in Couture’s studio who was modelling in classical positions. Manet challenged the status quo, something that Paglia also does. She does indeed rock the boat in her book, over and over again.
Moving backward to the introduction, I was enthralled. I could really relate to modern life seen as a “sea of images” and how we are all faced with too much visual over stimulation thanks to mass media and our electronic gadgets. Professor Boat Rocker continues with how children “receive a torrential stream of flickering images, which addict them to seductive distractions and make social reality, with its duties and ethical concerns, seem dull and futile. The only way to teach focus is to present the eye with opportunities for steady perception – best supplied by the contemplation of art.” Does this mean also contemplating Star Wars? Is it something worth contemplating? How can she dare compare Lucas’ Cross-Sections books to Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks?
Perhaps she has also been a disgruntled professor watching her students glued to their tablets or phones instead of listening to her lectures. Perhaps she feels discouraged by their apparent lack of interest in anything else. She offers solutions, mainly education as she believes in teaching. Is anyone listening anymore? What can be done about everyone’s gadgets? It’s a bit of a problem for which I don’t think she really has a solution, except, in her own terms, they have the great art work of George Lucas’ Star Wars to contemplate.
On Q TV, Paglia speaks about her book in rapid sequences like a machine gun, shooting out the words one after another rather aggressively, not giving the listener time to minimally absorb the “important” things she says. Her excessive gestures and body movements are quite disturbing at times. I wonder if she does this in the classroom too. It would be nice if she could speak without causing everyone else to huff and puff to keep up with her, as though she were on speed or worse. We should probably forget her interviews and just look at her writing, though the interviews give another perspective to the writing and its contents.
Surprisingly, with the Egyptians, she starts with their haunting messages from the dead. Is it that a message from the dead is secretly haunting her when she speaks in front of a camera? Is this why she cannot relax and relate to her interlocutors? The messages from the dead in ancient Egypt perhaps connect to the messages from Star Wars: Immortality and eternal life, both present in Egyptian art and in Star Wars “art”. This could have contributed to her choice of Lucas for the last chapter, or better, her version of The Last Supper.
I wonder about her choices. Why doesn’t she reflect more on her Italian heritage? Where are the Futurists? Do they not send messages from their graves? I also wonder why her “journey through art from Egypt to Star Wars” only focuses on the western world? Is ancient Egyptian art considered part of the western world or not? It must be borderline. John Adams from the New York Times finds that confining the choice of artwork “almost exclusively to Europe and North America is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable. How can any serious survey published in 2012 slight the testament of the human condition as expressed in artworks from the world’s other civilizations?”
“The important question,” she writes “about art is: what lasts, and why?” Regarding Tamara de Lempicka’s painting Portrait of Doctor Boucard, as he holds the test tube of blood she says, “it implies that Dr. Boucard, like the Egyptians, is searching for the secret of eternal life. But as Lempicka demonstrates in this painting that resurrects a once famous but now forgotten man, only art has that power.” Is she, herself, afraid of being forgotten? Is that the urgency we can detect when she speaks?
With the final chapter on Star Wars with a shot by shot breakdown, it’s as though we are talking about a Leonardo da Vinci or a Rubens. My neighbour’s five-year-old has all the film series and the merchandise, including t-shirts, Lego toys and video games, in which he is totally mesmerized while playing. He even has the £19.99 Lego Skywalker watch. Disney is now building two Star War Lands, one in California and the other in Florida. There will also soon be a Star Wars TV series in streaming to make this an ongoing art affair. Virtual reality experiences of the Star Wars story will soon be available in Anaheim, California, London and Orlando malls where people can get their own performance for thirty minutes at $30 (any longer would be an extra dollar per minute) complete with goggles and computer backpacks. Can this “art” experience get any “better? If indeed this is art, what can be next?
Paglia started with the Egyptians and ended the book with George Lucas’s Star Wars because there is a connection. With some ongoing discussion about who really built the Egyptian pyramids believed by many to have been the aliens, the connection to Star Wars becomes idiomatic.
Why is she so fascinated by Star Wars? This is the art all of us gadget dependents have been waiting for. Does it give us what Paglia says looking at a painting should give us, “A magical tranquillity?” I’m not sure, but certainly the multi-billion-dollar empire of Star Wars is proof that she’s right.
Jian Ghomeshi interviewing Paglia on Q TV referring to George Lucas asks, “hasn’t he contributed to those glittering flashing images that are distracting us from art?” Paglia evades the answer and says that “she was searching for strong examples of contemporary art to end the book with a bang and no other contemporary artist has attempted or succeeded it.” Really? Philip Marchand from SF Gate says, “art quickly tends towards decadence, as the last chapter of this book demonstrates.” While SF Gate J.M. Tyre: “Paglia’s lionizing of George Lucas as “the world’s greatest living artist” is a calibrated outrage that pointedly rejects the institutionalization of contemporary art and deliberately embraces trash.”
She says in Los Angeles Magazine: “Lucas was not part of my original plan for the book. But as I was searching for strong works of contemporary art with which to end the book, I couldn’t find them. It was very discouraging. Everything seemed to be derivative of something else. No one was making bold statements except in the field of architecture. As I was writing the book—which took five years—I would channel surf for relaxation and repeatedly encounter the Star Wars films being broadcast by Spike TV. Slowly, the enormous power of the volcano-planet finale of Revenge of the Sith worked its magic on me. I became obsessed with it. It seemed like epic poetry, nature painting, and grand opera all rolled into one. After studying it deeply, I think that the long, complex finale of Sith is the most important work of art produced anywhere in the world in the last 30 years.”
Star Wars, she says, has “penetrated the imagination of young people for three generations around the world.” Isn’t this just what we’re worried about, the loss of imagination of our young people? Can’t you see it Paglia? Can’t you see that you too have fallen into the trap? Your mind has been taken.
Professor Boat Rocker I wish to thank you for your book; it was well worth the read, which I found very thought provoking. You have helped me focus on the state of the art world more than I have been able to in the last ten years. It isn’t necessary for me to like all aspects of your book for me to advise others to read it. Who knows, maybe even Disney will make a film of your life and immortalize your writings in a format more conforming to the non-readers of tomorrow.
Pendery Weekes is the managing editor UK and a writer
volume 32 no 5 May / June 2018 pp 36-37