Can Anyone Learn How to Appreciate Art?

Befitting Camille Paglia’s firebrand reputation, the publication of her latest book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, has pressed cultural debates. Peruse any of the many interviews and reviews and find topics as diverse as the poor state of public education, feminism, and Democratic ideals to the hidden “gems” of pop culture. Excellent topics and needed discussions all, but the brilliance of Glittering Images is often missed. It is simply a short, and welcome, book on how to study art.

In her concise chapters, Paglia models what all of us can do to study any art we encounter: learn about the time, the artist, and the method. She intended for children to happen upon her book on a rainy afternoon, thumb through it, and be inspired to learn more.

If that simple how-to sounds obvious to you, then you are not likely part of the art world. According to the guardians of art conventional wisdom, it is supposed to be difficult. They do not countenance Paglia’s assertion that it isn’t.

With pitch perfect smugness, the New York Times review illustrates:

Written with the proverbial common reader in mind, “Glittering Images” comprises a historical sequence from the ancient Egyptian funerary images of Queen Nefertari to George Lucas’s “Revenge of the Sith” episode of “Star Wars.” Each work is located in its historical and stylistic context and then subjected to Paglia’s “reading.” …

The book’s premise is to chart the history of Western art in “an attempt to reach a general audience for whom art is not a daily presence.” There is humility and sincerity in such a goal, and one is reminded of the work of Carl Sagan, or Bertrand Russell’s layman’s introduction to relativity, or Aaron Copland’s “What to Listen for in Music,” books intended to demystify important subjects in science and art for those who might otherwise be too intimidated to engage with them. But Paglia’s choice of examples, coupled with her frequent broadsides on everything from New York gallery pricing to feminist politics to “the in-group of hip cognoscenti” and those wickedly subversive post-structuralists, damages her argument and leaves one wondering exactly to whom she is talking.

This is classic hip cognoscenti condescension.

He assumes if he can’t understand what she writes, then the “proverbial common folk” certainly can’t. He misses that he is just the sort of hip cog Paglia writes about, not to.

In addition to the scare quotes and the intellectual name dropping, he launches highbrow broadsides at the geographic scope,

“Why “Glittering Images” would confine itself almost exclusively to Europe and North America is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable,” and at her inclusion of Star Wars, which “ponders the mystery of our existence at the level of a toddler.”

He is so wedded to the notion of esoteric art that he can’t see Paglia’s strategy. She chose more recent but lesser known Western works to pique readers’ interest with something almost familiar. And while I don’t think she conveniently imagined Revenge of the Sith‘s visual artistry, she crowned George Lucas deliberately.  I doubt Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Blue Dawn would have generated as much curiosity. She knows that to influence culture, one must engage it.

Paglia wrote her book to rescue art from the ideal of the unattainable. It isn’t as intimidating as science. We need not slog through Russell on relativity to understand it. We simply need to learn a little history and a bit about the artist’s technique to see what the artist has rendered.


Previously from Leslie Loftis at PJ Lifestyle:

The 5 Most Underrated Pop Culture Heroines

The 5 Most Overrated Pop Culture Heroines