I Knew You Were Trouble
If finding an article by Camille Paglia in The Hollywood Reporter is not in itself surreal enough an experience, the fact that the main premise of her THR piece — that Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Hollywood are “ruining women” — is contradicted by the views she expressed a month earlier in the WSJ surely is.
#1 ATTENTION BORE
To anyone familiar with Camille Paglia’s raison d’être, her October essay in the Wall Street Journal comes as no surprise: once again she strives to be polemical, and tries— in a painful, performative writing style — to shock the masses to garner attention and outrage for her controversial beliefs.
In the early 1990s, when Yale University Press published her first book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson she declared sans hesitation her bathetic mission: “to offend absolutely everybody.” There can be a certain degree of journalistic, scholarly, and personal worth in being able to say offensive things, but when a text aims at the ubiquitous offense of everyone, the standards of the writer should be questioned.
A recent McNally Jackson panel discussion led by Harper’s senior editor Christopher Cox investigated the pragmatic existence of “experimental” fiction. The panel participants were Harper’s contributors Joshua Cohen, Rivka Galchen and Heidi Julavits. Julavits mentioned an exercise she often uses as a writing teacher to help her students find a voice: she requests them to approach their subject using “hate.” However, Julavits herself clarified that she approaches her readers with a stoic honesty and an earnest desire to be understood and trusted.
Paglia has not become a more nuanced writer who respects her readership over the past two decades, but instead continues to court shocked gasps.
HYPERBOLE AS NORM
When the ultimate goal of writing is attaining the highest level of shock from one’s audience, the writing becomes disingenuous: it forms an exaggerated, overconscientious performance, loses its credibility, and deteriorates the relationship of trust between reader and writer to which we are accustomed. Paglia is a persuasive contrarian, but does she, herself, believe what she writes?
The ADD reality that comprises modernity dictates the employment of extremes by those trying to make a memorable impression. Consider the use of social media to assess the validity of individuals’ shift towards using the extreme, the shocking and the memorable: we are more and more inclined to “like” the economic hardship of a “friend” who self-deprecatingly jokes about it, as well as address a “status” that offends us by calling out its producer. Sometimes it feels like the spread of social media gave a voice to too many people who needn’t be heard. One would hope that in publishing the voices that are chosen to receive the attention of hoi polloi have been picked for a larger reason than being remembered.
In an article of fewer than 1,200 words, the “bête noire” feminist endeavors to cajole the reader that the visual arts — and not the arts overall as the broad title implies — have dramatically declined over the past 40 years. Paglia asserts that there have been no visual artists of significance in the realms of painting or sculpture since the 1970s. While this could be a strong statement coming from an honest writer, it fails to shock under these circumstances, simply because it is Paglia who makes it. Over time, observant readers have become accustomed to her shock-oriented tactics. At this point, the only way Paglia could shock her audience would be for her to not be offensive.
THERE HAVE BEEN SIGNIFICANT ARTISTS
Contrary to her provocative assertion, there have been many traditional visual artists whose work has had an effect on the social level. Consider the emblematic visual artist Richard Prince. Prince is a prominent figure on a broad level, and his name is instantly recognized within culturally-aware groups. Prince first gained fame through incorporating “rephotography” in tobacco advertisements, a method that utilizes appropriation as the artist’s epicenter for the production of new works. Appropriation art gained traction and became a profound influence in downtown New York in the 1980s. Other celebrated artists who utilized appropriation during this time were Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman, all recent and significant visual artists.
Numerous art movements have appeared in the time period between the 1960s and today, encompassing feminist art, computer art, graffiti art, new media art and internet art. The widespread use of technology could not have left artists, their production methods, and their work unaffected. Jon Ippollito, a central figure in the internet art movement, wrote Ten Myths of Internet Art to swiftly counter the contempt of many “Art purists” towards New Media art. Ippollito makes the case for the belonging of internet art in traditional museums and the internet’s role as a social mechanism rather than a solitary device. If skeptics are not persuaded by the demythologization of common misconceptions of internet art, they are at least challenged to respect others’ differing views on the matter.
Paglia considers this drought of artistic creativity to be the result of two factors: the “expansion of form” and the “contraction of ideology.” The writer certainly succeeds in offending with this argument. She offends not by challenging our preconceived notions of our system of order, but by sourcing the route of the lack of modern creativity in two antithetical forces. If a contraction of artistic ideology had truly occurred the forms would not be expanded.
i. Expansion of Form: There Shall Be No Blue Horses
Paglia describes the shift in the artistic community from painting towards the dense employment of multimedia in a disdainful manner, denoting her scorn for the new and the unknown. She considers “multimedia-infected” artworks to be of ephemeral artistic quality and not on par with the traditional buoyancy of paintings. “Permanence faded as a goal of art-making,” she bluntly claims.
Claiming to possess the ability to decide for others what is of higher artistic merit and what is solely over-celebrated kitsch —that is, considering oneself credible in deciphering where the borders of artistic aptitude lie for others — without generously building one’s criticisms from an honest viewpoint devoid of performed dramatizations is an alarming violation of everything that makes art a personal matter. Succumbing to such an arrogant stance would result in the production of uniform works of art. Once blue horses challenged the audience’s understanding of reality, but it is most likely that Paglia would categorize Franz Marc among the vrais artistes of the 20th century.
ii. Contraction of Ideology: Are We Post-Avant?
Paglia perceives the privileged middle-class social standing of artists as the second factor that contributes to the modern artistic drought. “Unfortunately, too many artists have lost touch with the general audience and have retreated to an airless echo chamber.” She omits the hyper-connectivity modern technology has birthed, along with the acute accessibility to the general audience social media generously offers to artists.
Elitist as it may sound, Paglia’s observation — were we to accept its validity — marks no radical point in the history of art: having artists that come from a middle class or upper-middle class background has often been thought of as a systemic failure in the mechanism of art, thus also an actuality. The writer cites specific modern conditions that she believes contribute to the problem of artists creating products of lesser quality today due to their social standing, but she fails to demonstrate how this phenomenon indicates a recent development in the field.
Paglia views young people’s lack of exposure to manual trades — due to their direct transition to higher institutionalized education — as a detrimental danger for their creativity. She forfeits the well-documented emphasis many young people place on organic farming, often even partaking in it, and argues that for the arts to be saved, “young artists must be rescued from their sanitized middle-class backgrounds.” In turn, Paglia rejects that these very backgrounds — and the frustrations that often accompany them — may trigger creativity. How dare Taylor Swift write songs about suffering heartbreak?
Paglia’s last series of recommendations is geared towards the business of art, and how artists should think of themselves as entrepreneurs. Paglia views the eclectic taste of the younger generation as a consequence of their being raised among beautiful products of superior industrial design. In conclusion, she predicts the younger generation will be creatively doomed, unless it espouses the capitalism as the leading force that resulted in its current circumstances of privilege.
In “Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Hollywood Are Ruining Women,” Camille Paglia ties many of the problems of modern art to its capitalist methods of production. She hints that Swift is too bland and consciously unconsciously-glam, Perry too fake and manufactured, and accuses the film industry of being too obsessed with youth to allow artistic maturity. The link between the whiteness of Perry and Swift to the marketing-entourage-created image is what primarily agitates Paglia. They are too “soft” and saturated for her, too consumed by the process of production to appeal to audiences. The critic credits a handful of non-white performers with what she grotesquely considers as their strength: their otherness, which is also always their non-whiteness. “Urban rappers’ notorious sexism seems to have made black female performers stronger and more defiant,” she states, demonstrating her hilariously myopic understanding of hip hop.
Keeping a straight face is elevated to a challenge for the reader when Paglia ponders, “what do contemporary artists have to say, and to whom are they saying it?” Questioning the message artists attempt to convey and their intended audience, she concludes that the art microcosm has fallen victim to “a monolithic political orthodoxy.” She proceeds to accuse the banality of the art mechanism for rewarding creators of work that yields nothing more than mere shock. This accusation surely entertains informed readers who are cognizant of the — unintentionally — meta character the essay crystallizes.
In proper après-garde fashion, Paglia announces the death of the avant-garde, tracing its death back to the intrusion of populist imagery in Andy Warhol’s works. At this point, it is the critic herself who can be viewed as an actor perceiving her surroundings in a monolithic political orthodoxy. Essentially, the writer seems attached to the naivete of the pre-Warhol avant-garde that lent it a rarefied air.
First, to call attention to the urgency of saving art she falsely claims there have been no significant artists in more than four decades. Second, she roots the artistic decadence in the expansion of form present in modern art, which is actually responsible for enriching the visual arts with new elements. Third, she attributes the lack of artistic creativity to the privileged backgrounds of artists, yet does not show how this composition is a recent change in the demographics of the artistic community. With “How Capitalism Can Save Art,” Paglia fails to convey how an economic system can protect art on numerous fronts.
YOU CAN’T MAKE UP YOUR MIND CAMILLE?
In his interview with The Millions, Daniel Mendelsohn, a brilliant critic and proponent of de rigueur critical honesty, said, “What happens to most people is they start out, they’re subversive, they’re quirky, they’re interesting, they have a new way of dealing with a subject. It puts them on the map. But then, you know, you win a lot of awards, you have a house in the country…And whatever your edge was, it goes away. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, you keep working.”
Paglia has surely kept writing. But if capitalism can save art, Paglia has done little to show it, and if her way of dealing with her subjects seemed “avant-garde” before it is now painfully mainstream. Her views are also exceedingly consumed by her attempt to appeal to an audience by shocking them, thus further removed from the honest process of production a serious writer owes his readers.
Taylor Swift shouldn’t suffer much from this critic’s disdain.