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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.