Critic/provocateur Paglia applies to the visual arts the same close scrutiny she lavished on poetry in Break, Blow, Burn (2005).
Readers who have found the author grating in the past are advised to skip the introduction, which contains her usual rants against “the Marxist approaches that now permeate academe.” Beyond this predictable prelude, however, lies an intelligently detailed examination of 29 works of art, ranging from a tomb painting of Egyptian Queen Nefertari to George Lucas’ film Revenge of the Sith. (Yes, Paglia had to include one item to assert her hip openness to pop culture, but it’s a minor irritant.) The author cogently locates individual pieces within a cultural continuum and eloquently spotlights the artistic qualities that make them unique. Each essay includes a full-page photo of the work in question. Paglia is especially good on classical art. The bronze sculpture The Charioteer of Delphi, for example, is nicely described as embodying “the Greek principle…which saw virtue and physical beauty as inseparably intertwined.” Paglia’s discussions of a medieval mosaic of St. John Chrysostom and the illuminated Book of Kells show her equally receptive to Catholic art, and an exegesis of Titian’s Venus with a Mirror lovingly evokes the glories of Renaissance painting. Moving through romanticism, impressionism, surrealism and abstract expressionism—to name only a few highlights—Paglia gives a vivid sense of the sweep and scope of art history. The author loves pop art (Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych), but sections on Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field display a surprising fondness for conceptualism and minimalism as well. African-American artists get their due in essays on John Wesley Hardrick’s sensitive portrait, Xenia Goodloe, and Renee Cox’s witty Chillin’ with Liberty.
When she gets off her soapbox, Paglia is a wonderful popularizer of art history and art appreciation.