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”.
Without pausing for breath, Paglia babbles on about Mondrian’s unsuccessful attempts at dating (“His courtly but detached manner put women off,” she confides, as if she were his exasperated mother) and then dashes off in pursuit of Impressionism, Japanese art, Futurism, Dada and Russian Constructivism. When at long last she remembers the painting, she barely throws it a glance before likening it to Mark Rothko. It’s all noise and no illumination, stripping Mondrian’s painting of any innate presence and merely using it as a prop for self-aggrandising yada yada yada.
We reach the crowning glory of gushy, gossipy banality in the chapter devoted to Tamara de Lempicka’s Portrait of Doctor Boucard. Not content with telling us that Boucard was once snapped dancing the tango with a “peppy” woman called Bibi, Paglia suddenly interjects that his yacht, the Lacteol III, was later owned by actor Peter Ustinov. Who on earth cares? I pity the honest, diligent student bamboozled into believing that the contemplation of great art compels one to spew out great torrents of glib cultural references, when this is nothing more than the path to superficiality, intellectual sterility and profound spiritual emptiness.
If “focus” really were the core of this book, then it would be radically different. Every chapter would begin with the image at hand. We would be led to consider line, colour, symmetry, contrast and mood. We would be encouraged to pay attention to facial expressions, quirks of gesture, the rhythm of clothes-and we’d be given the confidence to respond to what we see in the light of our own experience.
At this point, we would begin to move from the perceptual to the conceptual. Only then would we place our tentative interpretation within the frame of art history, learn of the struggles of the artist, and reflect on how the meaning of the artwork deepens as we muse on it over time. This is when the conceptual becomes the spiritual, when our initial emotional and rational conclusions are lived, tested, confirmed or transformed-sometimes in days, sometimes over decades. This is how the see-er and the seen merge and re-emerge, to be charged and changed forever.
If you want an introduction to art, please don’t be seduced by Paglia’s flighty book of fragments, which is the splintered mirror-image of the “swirling barrage of disconnected data” she decries. For chronology, read E.H. Gombrich’s Story of Art. For beauty, read Kenneth Clark’s The Nude. For a passionate, highly personal and witty attack on the debased standards of modern artists, Brian Sewell’s Naked Emperors is an outrageous delight from start to finish.
But where should you go for contemplation? Download Walter Pater’s Renaissance to your Kindle and commit his astonished perceptions of Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci to memory. Yes, to “burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life”. Not yakking about Peter Ustinov’s yacht.