Wednesday, May 11, 2005


When Camille Paglia was introduced last week at the American Enterprise Institute, Christina Hoff Sommers noted that the lecture had the “characteristically modest in scope” title of “Art, Politics and Religion in America Today.”

A professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Miss Paglia’s fifth book, “Break, Blow, Burn,” is a discussion of 43 of what she deems the greatest poems in the Western canon. The following are excerpts from her lecture and her responses in a question-and-answer period:

I just spent five years on this book “Break, Blow, Burn,” keeping a very low profile because I felt it was absolutely necessary to go directly to the general audience on a question of art. I’m trying to put in front of general readers examples of art.

I go from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” at the very end in order to encourage a kind of direct engagement with art which I feel that campus ideologies have not permitted for a very long time. …

I am a secular humanist. I am a lapsed Catholic and an atheist. However, I believe, as much as the new pope, that secular humanism is sick, it is spiritually empty. Part of the problem is that the left has tried to elevate politics … over all other aspects of culture. Particularly for me as a humanities professor, art has been the victim of this over the past three decades. …

What I would say to conservatives is that it’s really incorrect for you to laud the canon and demand for its reintroduction without embracing the other part of the canon in Western culture, and that is the visual arts tradition in the Greco-Roman line … where the nude and where the eroticism of the body are very, very important. What I see coming from conservatives is a tendency to censor, and a kind of sanitization of what the history of art means, which means you have to edit out an incredible amount from the canon, from Donatello and Michelangelo’s nudes through Titian, Caravaggio to the 19th century Delacroix, Manet, Renoir, et cetera. Is that what conservatism means in education?

But then to the left, I want to say, you have vandalized art in this period of identity politics, another part of the legacy of the 1960s. Politics began to feel that art was merely a servant of its own agenda on campus. That is when the universities went very seriously astray, when the humanities began to become corrupted, and that’s how they marginalized themselves. …

Art lasts. … It’s a spiritual resource. But no, no, no — over the last 30 years on American campuses, the idea of the best or the greatest was just thrown out as relative, subjective, based on political considerations and so on.

Identity politics has to go. We’ve got to bring back the idea that all of art belongs to all people. And that we don’t want a situation where young women are being encouraged to read only works by women. What is the end result of that? A lot of bad poetry. …

I have poems by Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer that are from the Harlem Renaissance at its height. These are African-American poets who saw the whole history of poetry as part of their property, their intellectual property. They drew from it, they were inspired by it. And that’s why those poems are as good as they are, because they did not confine themselves simply to writing by African-Americans.

But now today, you have young people, aspiring writers, aspiring artists who are being given very, very thin porridge. They are not being exposed to the best that has been written, to the best that has been created in the visual arts. So I’m very, very concerned about the future of the American arts. Art defines a civilization, and I do not see where our future artists are going to come from.

At the present moment, young people are surrounded by a popular culture that’s in a very degraded state. I no longer have the kind of evangelical fervor that I had for pop when I first sprang on the scene in the early ‘90s because I watched it decline over the last almost 15 years. Something has gone very, very wrong, even at the level of simple craft in the movies that are coming out of Hollywood. …

But what exactly is culturally nourishing in young people’s environment? Design has become a substitute, but design has no spiritual message, it has no spiritual content to it. And I maintain that art has a spiritual dimension, and that is what has not been acknowledged in the way literature has been taught in this period of deconstruction for the past 30 years. And this is terrible and crippling for young people.

A Catholic in the old style, if you are a Mediterranean-style or Latin Catholic, will see imagery of nudity in your church. But it’s a fact that since the 1950s, American Catholic churches have been Protestantized. They’ve been remodeled. These gory statues are considered tasteless and have been removed to the cellar or donated. The new churches all look like airport waiting stations. Even the visual nurturing of young Catholics has been cut off. That’s why there was so much interesting comment about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” because he was bringing back all the blood and the guts that were part of the old working-class ethnic view of the story of Christ.

I now realize to my sorrow that the great moment in American popular culture really was from the beginning of the Hollywood studio system to about the early 1990s. The rise of the Web in the ‘90s has drained a great deal of the cultural energy from the traditional performing arts and fine arts, and you really are seeing it in this miniaturization of product from Hollywood. …

There’s less interest now in the traditional forms of popular culture and mass media. There’s a slapdash quality. If you compare the quality of TV sitcom scripts from the late ‘90s or even now to the quality of scriptwriting in the great period of TV sitcoms in the 1960s and ‘70s like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the quality of performance, the tightness with which the script is done, the way everybody is on their mark. You’re still seeing in that period the influence of live performing arts and vaudeville.

The whole tradition of live theater once fed early Hollywood and early TV for a very long time. In 1920s and ‘30s Manhattan, when there were hundreds of theaters, people could just come right from Iowa, Connecticut or wherever and get a job and watch and learn and absorb and so on. You could go into a vaudeville house in any provincial city and a guy would say, “OK, I’ll give you a chance, let’s see what you can do, kid. Go out there.” And you could do things like that. Now, today, kids can’t even afford to get into a Broadway show. …

There’s a fragmentation, a lack of emotional continuity, to build a storyline. I can see already, they no longer want to pick up books. Books are tedious. The idea that to do a research project, they might have to go to the library when they can sit at a computer and do it — to them, it’s like cruel and unusual punishment. …

I do feel that all these factors are leading to a kind of factitious and nutritionless cultural environment for the young and a popular culture which once had a kind of emotional jolt to it now has ceased to have it. The emotional jolt is now through barbarism and gore and tremendous, overwhelming volume in the movie theater. Used to be the emotional jolt was a genuine emotional resonance, even in soap operas.

Now you have this cheap, silly, teenage stuff, imitation of prime-time crime dramas. Except I would say in Spanish-language novellas and Spanish-language soap operas [that] still retain the emotional drama, and so does Bollywood. … The things coming out of India, you can still see the incredible emotional charge, the sexual sizzle between male and female. It’s still going on. Just not in America.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide