Back in Vogue: The Nightcharm Interview with Camille Paglia


Her new book Glittering Images returns Camille Paglia to the subject that brought her fame: the great themes of Western art. The best-selling author of Sexual Personae and Break, Blow, Burn takes readers on an almost impossibly erudite journey through her choice of Western art’s 29 most defining moments, from the tomb of Ancient Egypt's Queen Nefertari to the climactic volcano planet duel in George Lucas' Revenge of the Sith.

Glittering Images is a kaleidoscopic scholarly survey from one of the world's most acclaimed and opinionated cultural critics. Perhaps not incidentally, the book was released on the 158th anniversary of Oscar Wilde's birth.

Needless to say, it was a real pleasure when Camille Paglia spoke with Nightcharm this week.

MARK ADNUM: It’s great to talk with you again. And I really mean that because when Gore Vidal and Robert Hughes died within a week of each other earlier in the year, I was worried who was next. It turned out to be Anna Piaggi. Thank God it wasn’t you!

CAMILLE PAGLIA: I was a great fan of Gore Vidal during the late 1960s, when he was frequently on TV talk shows in the U.S. and when he published Myra Breckinridge, with its revolutionary transsexual hero/heroine. It’s so unfortunate that the 1970 movie of Myra was such a bomb, because it should have been one of the landmark films of the time. Raquel Welch boldly risked her reputation by taking that gender-fluid role, and I think she did a great job. But the rest of the movie was a mess.

Vidal will certainly go down in history for daring to write frankly about homosexuality in the late 1940s, but I was barely born at the time and so did not witness that. Vidal was a witty pugilist on TV, but I have to say that he became increasingly irrelevant as the 1970s wore on. I became fatigued with his imperious waspishness about American culture and politics, from which he was completely detached in his luxe Italian villa. His contempt for everyone and everything -- from American politicians to mainstream voters -- started seeming like a compulsive tic. Finally, I dismissed him completely as a virulent narcissist.

As a cultivated lover of literature and the arts, Vidal could have played a major role in helping American universities resist the toxic tide of post-structuralism, which began in the 1970s and has effectively destroyed the humanities. He could also have helped warn about the rising political correctness in feminism and gay activism. But he did nothing -- he was too self-involved. So I’m afraid I lost respect for him.

As for Robert Hughes, I thought his columns about art for TIME magazine were absolutely splendid and a perfect model for how to address the general audience in a clear and lively manner. No one filled the culture gap in the American mainstream press after that column ended. Those pieces should be collected in a textbook of cultural criticism aimed at students learning to write about art.

However, I am not as much a fan of Hughes’ books, which I find garrulous and insufficiently honed. I also remember, with no pleasure, that when I arrived on the scene amid a storm of defamatory controversy in the early 1990s, Hughes made no effort whatever to support me or my dissident views, despite his obvious agreement with them. At times I saw traces of my own ideas or phrasings in his writing about political correctness, and so my opinion of him and his ethical standards of course plummeted.

MARK ADNUM: Elton John thought Madonna’s antics on her current world tour made her look like a “fairground stripper”, something Susanna Hoffs from The Bangles picked up on years ago when she described Madonna as the world’s most successful burlesque dancer. Madonna's current period is not offering up many glittering images and about the only interesting thing she’s done in the past five years is admit that she absolutely loathes hydrangeas. Are you over Madonna?

CAMILLE PAGLIA: Madonna’s great period as a cultural figure of world influence lasted for a decade after her debut in 1983, when she became known through the new medium of MTV. Her "Vogue” video (1990) is one of the most important works of true art from that period. But by 1992, with the publication of that awful but commercially successful book Sex, her creative height was past. Madonna must be honoured for her vast achievement in music and dance: she has influenced stage performance all over the world, including India and Japan. It’s good that she has tried to stay active, but her fans cannot expect her to match the originality and power of her flaming youth.

That being said, I am very disappointed with the vulgar exhibitionism that Madonna, a woman in her 50s, is indulging in on her latest world tour. Flashing her sagging flesh just makes her look silly and desperate. She should be imitating the glamour and class of her great model, Marlene Dietrich, who knew how to age with grace and style. Dietrich’s late performances, when she could barely walk onstage in her svelte dress and magnificent ermine wrap, were models of artistry and power.

Madonna is also too full of preachy bromides, which have detracted from what should be her focus on her music. Her political views are shallow and cringingly clichéd, partly because of her saturation in the portentous murk of contemporary Kabbalah. She should have focused her energy on her latest CD, which is painfully weak except for a couple of songs. She has way too many irons in the fire—such as directing forgettable movies.

MARK ADNUM: Glittering Images ends with your acclamation of George Lucas as the world’s greatest living artist, an idea that has raised many an eyebrow. Without giving the ending of Glittering Images away, can you shed some light?

CAMILLE PAGLIA: It was never my intention to include George Lucas in Glittering Images. I had planned to end the book on some strong examples of contemporary art. But I couldn’t find any! Everything seemed derivative, reminding me of ten other prior works over the past 200 years. As I was channel surfing during the five years of writing the book, I kept stumbling on the Star Wars films being shown on cable TV. Slowly, step by step, I fell under the spell of the long finale of Revenge of the Sith (2005), which was the last film Lucas directed in the series. It is absolutely spectacular -- combining apocalyptic nature with a devastation of industry and the destruction of politics, all interwoven with a passionate light-saber duel (filmed in Australia) and climaxing with a tortured parallel birth and death. Nothing even remotely as powerful has been produced by any of the fine arts -- including literature -- in the past 30 years.

MARK ADNUM: How does pornography relate to your theories about art?

CAMILLE PAGLIA: I have taken a radically pro-pornography position throughout my career. It was one of the main themes of my first book, Sexual Personae. So many feminists try to claim that they are pro-sex (a term I invented, by the way) and yet anti-porn. That was a frequent annoying motif in the recent avalanche of negative reviews by fellow feminists of Naomi Wolf’s new book, Vagina. I find that totally absurd. Anyone who cannot appreciate pornography has a sexual limitation of some kind -- unless he or she is guided by a conservative religious code, which I can certainly respect. But liberals who hate pornography? Hypocrites and philistines.

There is no logical way to separate art and pornography. There is high-quality pornography and low-quality pornography -- just as there is good and bad art. But pornographic display and pornographic motivation can be found throughout the great Western art tradition -- including in martyrdom scenes of the Christian saints on church walls. The anti-pornography crusade of mainstream feminism in the 1980s boiled with obsessive fanaticism. It was very clear that the leaders of the movement were totally ignorant about the visual arts. No one who had studied and admired the beautiful male and female nudes of Greco-Roman sculpture and Renaissance, Baroque, and nineteenth-century painting could have gotten into such a silly dither over pornography and its alleged evils. There is no way to appreciate the total grandeur of Western art without an openness toward pornographic expression.

The anti-porn campaign died suddenly, of course, with the rise of the Web in the 1990s. Now the hysterical feminist vigilantes were pathetically powerless. They could get Playboy and Penthouse out of the convenience stores, but they were helpless against the all-pervasive reach of the Web, where pornography is flourishing all over the world. Pornography is now where it should always have been -- within the instant reach and personal choice of the free individual.

MARK ADNUM: Nightcharm's publisher also works as a professional astrologer. He's always reminding me that your horoscope and mine are similar in elemental structure. We're both fire signs (I’m Sagittarius) with airy Libra ascendants and Moons in earthy Virgo. You also have a stellium of planets in watery Pisces. Do you follow the intricacies of your natal astrology?

CAMILLE PAGLIA: This is truly fascinating about the similarities in our natal charts! I was converted to astrology in my first week at college in 1964. I picked up a book about astrology in the campus book store and was astounded to read the description of the combative Aries personality. It was totally me! Everything which people had complained about and tried to drum out of me during that conformist era (at home, school, church, and Girl Scout camp) turned out to have been innate. I now had a rationale for embracing my Amazonian character!

I studied astrology extensively in college and continued to assemble materials about it through graduate school. The charts I did of friends at that time have proved highly interesting in terms of how their later lives and careers have fulfilled those predictions. I stopped those investigations after the 1970s, because I was too occupied with my scholarly writing, but I still have great respect for astrology, which I view as a compendium of 5000 years of observation and folk wisdom.

In terms of my own chart, that Aries-Libra combination (fire and air) is very combustible and gives me my original ideas, competitive drive, and performance skills onstage. But I have always said that my ability to patiently develop my ideas and to translate them into permanent form on the page comes entirely from my Virgo moon.

Aries-Libra is my Auntie Mame side, but Virgo is Agnes Gooch—Mame’s dowdy scribe who tirelessly records every detail and laboriously polishes a text. The surprising conflation of three planets in watery Pisces (Mercury, Venus, and Mars) is my intuitive and prophetic side -- my attunement to signals from the universe! Thus my chart seems well-balanced among the four elements -- earth, air, fire, and water -- which were the basis of early Greek science and philosophy and which still have enormous poetic power as symbols of human life.

Glittering Images is now available in hardback, or if you like to keep yourself modern, for Kindle.

© 2012 Nightcharm.

Photograph of Camille Paglia: Michael Lionstar/Random House.
Astrology Illustration, Aries Woman by Virgil Finlay.