If you are an artist and you don’t recognize the name of Moses,” Pagliasays, “then the West is dead. It’s over. It has committed suicide.
The art world is in spiritual crisis—it has not had a new idea in years. So argues the cultural critic and feminist provocateur Camille Paglia in her new book,Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars. The book—intended as a companion piece to her 2005 volume of poetry criticism, Break, Blow, Burn—is a slim survey of Western art in 29 essays, each focusing on a single work of art. The works include the idols of Cyclades (circa 3500–2300 B.C.), Bernini’s Chair of Saint Peter (circa 1647–53), Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), and some surprises—like the Star Wars film Revenge of the Sith by George Lucas. The format of the book, Paglia explains in her introduction, is based on Catholic breviaries of devotional images, “like mass cards of the saints.” Recently I spent an afternoon with Paglia at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where we spoke about her new book, religion, and the state of art and culture today.
For Paglia, the spiritual quest defines all great art—all art that lasts. But in our secular age, the liberal crusade against religion has also taken a toll on art. “Sneering at religion is juvenile, symptomatic of a stunted imagination,” Paglia writes. “Yet that cynical posture has become de rigueur in the art world—simply another reason for the shallow derivativeness of so much contemporary art, which has no big ideas left.” Historically the great art of the West has had religious themes, either explicit or implicit. “The Bible, the basis for so much great art, moves deeper than anything coming out of the culture today,” Paglia says. As a result of its spiritual bankruptcy, art is losing its prominence in our culture. “Art makes news today,” she writes, “only when a painting is stolen or auctioned at a record price.”