Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Camille Paglia

I'm a big fan of hers, and was thrilled to hear of her return to Salon. Even when you disagree with her (and her fiesty originality guarantees that you will), she is, well, just somethin' else. I think her writing comes closer than anyone's to capturing the ineffable nature of thought, all the simultaneous asides, memories, jumps, ideas that form each moment of consciousness - the way your mind remains undaunted by crossroads, as it insists on going all ways at once, dragging you along, pulling you apart for the ride whether you like it or not.

All that having been said, here are my two favorite lines from her latest installment (both from the last page):

On Art: "For contemporary art to revive, it must shed its residual, shallow postmodernist ironies and re-embrace emotion and spirituality." I took, and excelled in, a modern art class at Harvard. Yet I have no training, no refined artistic sensibilities, and absolutely no respect for modern art. So how come I could do so well, to the point that the TF recommended I seriously consider making the field my career? Well, because I'm a smart-ass. That's all that art is about these days. Not beauty, not truth, not even novelty - nothing but cleverness. Write something clever (again, it need not be true, and it can be, and in fact often is, blatantly false; this doesn't matter), and you've got it made. Notice I said 'write something clever,' and not 'create something clever' - this is because the cleverness does not exist in the art itself. The art, in fact, is all but irrelevant. What matters is what the artist (or the critic) says about the art. Believe me, this approach is a lot of fun - in the smirky, smarmy, self-centered, and incredibly obnoxious way that being a smart-ass is fun. Present the world with an empty box, or a few metal tubes, or some fluorescent lights, say something profound about them, and be proclaimed a genius. The obvious problem here, and I repeat myself only out of years of pent-up frustration, is that the wit, the cleverness, lies entirely in the artist, and not at all in the art itself. That is why, as people often remark these days, anything can be art. As long as the artist is clever, he can pick anything he wants to say something clever about, and voila, a modern masterpiece. The art, on its own, without any observers to nod seriously at it, has no worth. On the other hand, even if Da Vinci or Caravaggio were illiterate morons (they weren't! I'm just saying), their works would still, and always, be beautiful - the value of great art lies, for eternity, in the works themselves, not in the related literature. To revisit the old cliche, if Botticelli's Venus is in a forest with nobody around to see it, it's still beautiful, it's still a work of art. If a piece of contemporary art is in a forest (or, just as likely, is the forest itself) with nobody to write about it, well, I'd probably take a chainsaw to it.

On the Humanities: "The teaching profession in the humanities has lost an entire generation of smart, imaginative young people who were driven away from graduate school because of its infestation by pointless, pretentious, Continental 'theory.'" This problem is related to the artistic one, I believe - I think the exact same scourge of ego-driven cleverness is to blame for deconstructionism, post-structuralism, the whole lot. I received an email yesterday from a high school student, in response to this brilliant, must-read Orwell essay, asking me this question: "The dilemma I am having is whether I should conform to what society accepts as 'intellectual' writing in order to receive a good grade, or write concisely and honestly so as to assist in the healing of the English language." I did not know what to reply. I just told him the truth, which is that, thanks to the very phenomenon he (and Paglia, and Orwell) pointed out, college was a near-complete waste of four years of my life, and no promise of 72 virgins, or even of just two or three kinky, hot-to-trot English majors, could ever lure me into even considering graduate school.

Wow, that post sure turned into a rant awful quick. I guess that's what happens when I don't blog for a while! Well, goodnight!

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