Ruined by gossip: "Portrait of Doctor Boucard" (1929) by Tamara de Lempicka
In the introduction to her new book, Glittering Images, Camille Paglia diagnoses the sickness of modern life and prescribes the antidote. We are drowning, she claims, in "a sea of images". Our eyes are "flooded by bright pictures and clusters of text flashing at us from every direction" and our brain is bombarded with a "swirling barrage of disconnected data". To find "stability, identity and life direction", we must relearn how to see. We must find "focus". We must "present the eye with opportunities for steady perception-best supplied by the contemplation of art".
This is all sharply observed and thrillingly promising, but everything that follows is a painful, bewildering disappointment. This book is to contemplation what attention deficit disorder is to nirvana. Far from leading us into a dream of visionary stillness, it induces a nightmare of frenzied distraction. It's like Wikipedia, only worse.
Paglia presents 29 images to our gaze, ranging from the Egyptian Queen Nefertari, the Charioteer of Delphi, Titian's Venus with a Mirror, Monet's Irises and Andy Warhol's Marilyn Diptych to George Lucas's Revenge of the Sith. But every time we turn to look, she talks about something else. Her eye never once settles. Fighting my way through this book, I was reminded of all the hours of fret and frustration I've spent in galleries trying to focus on a painting or sculpture while being surrounded by people jabbering about anything other than what is right there in front of them.
Take Paglia's chapter on Mondrian's Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow. Before we hear a single mention of this so-called "romance of the grid", we are hit by a tsunami of trivia, including references to Dutch Calvinism, Helena Blavatsky, the Barbizon school, Cubism, De Stijl magazine, World War I, the Arts and Crafts movement, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Bauhaus school, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, the Seagram Building, Gerrit Rietveld, Marcel Breuer, IKEA, neo-plasticism, American heiress Katherine Drier, jazz, and-in a moment of pure hilarity-"Yves Saint Laurent's epochal shift dresses of 1965".