The Eye is Drawn to “Glittering Images”
Surveying 5,000 years of Western art, in 188 pages, selecting 29 images. Well, that is quite a challenge. But Paglia, through her keen eye and breadth of scholarship succeeds admirably and the result is a visual and intellectual joyride. The captivating images chosen for discussion invoke powerful themes of love, sex, power, death, dehumanization, affluence, poverty, piety, nature, and the afterlife. The mind is enriched and awareness is changed and enhanced through intelligent contemplation of these powerful works. I love art history essays; they’re such an admixture of topics from technique, to aesthetics, to the history and politics of the era, to philosophical issues such as our place and purpose in the universe. All these themes are pithily and wittily discussed by Paglia. In her essay titled “The Race”, on the bronze sculpture of the Charioteer of Delphi of 475 B.C., she observes with perspicacity, “The Greeks defined existence as a struggle or contest (agon) that tested and built character. To strive to be the best was a moral duty. Life was a perpetual game or race, with little hope of rest.”
The introductory essay might be the keenest part of the entire book. Paglia asserts that great art creates dynamic, “glittering” images that draw the viewer in and captivate him or her. For thousands of years of western art, sculpture and painting — through action, color, and composition — dominated the world of art, but these media are now out-competed – in a nearly Darwinian sense – by even more dynamic, glittering computer-enhanced graphics and big-screen cinematography. Indeed, as Paglia proceeds chronologically through her survey of western art, the most recent painting selected for an essay was painted in 1930, over eight decades in the past (true, a Jackson Pollock work from 1949 is chosen, but Pollock’s “painting the air” technique of splashing and throwing paint at the canvas is essentially a different genre from applying paint directly onto the canvas). As contemporary minds are drawn to enhanced, dynamically moving images, will future generations even be able to stay still long enough to seriously look at traditional paintings and sculpture? Probably not, implies Paglia, and that is unfortunate. I see this in my children. If Paglia’s hunch about the future of art is correct, then it’s not unreasonable to be concerned not only about the survival of traditional visual art, but about other western cultural and artistic treasures as well. As we train our brains to “surf the net” and digest information no longer than a blog post or a tweet, will future generations read Shakespeare, Aristotle, or a biography of Winston Churchill, for example?