Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Camille Paglia on the Future of Art

Everyone has been linking to and quoting a new article by Camille Paglia in the Wall Street Journal. She is sort of a contrarian academic, meaning that she is a bit of an academic dissident. She has written widely on both popular culture and the art world. I've read this latest essay a few times and each time I read it, it seems to make less sense. Let me quote a bit of the beginning and follow with my comments:
Does art have a future? Performance genres like opera, theater, music and dance are thriving all over the world, but the visual arts have been in slow decline for nearly 40 years. No major figure of profound influence has emerged in painting or sculpture since the waning of Pop Art and the birth of Minimalism in the early 1970s.
 Oh, good grief: art always has a future and it will probably be different from today. I seriously question the claim in the next sentence: opera, theater and music are under great stress right now with aging audiences and falling revenues. Just off the top of my head, four or five symphony orchestras in the US were either on strike or about to go on strike in September because the management were going to cut players' salaries by up to 50%. Orchestras have been going in and out of bankruptcy for years. Are the visual arts in decline? Certainly not if you look at the prices some works have been commanding in auctions. I recall one modern painting selling for 89 million the other day. Damien Hirst and Ai Wei Wei seem to be doing just fine both career wise and, if you believe critics, aesthetically as well. But contemporary composers of music are struggling with pretty skimpy commissions these days. So I don't see any real evidence to back up any of the claims made in the first paragraph.

My problem here is that if she is this off-base in her basic understanding of the facts on the ground, is the rest even worth reading? She says later on:
The art world, like humanities faculties, suffers from a monolithic political orthodoxy—an upper-middle-class liberalism far from the fiery antiestablishment leftism of the 1960s. (I am speaking as a libertarian Democrat who voted for Barack Obama in 2008.)
This is probably true, but also irrelevant. No-one who sits down in front of a blank score or blank canvas has much political on their mind, orthodox, liberal or fascist! You just want to have an idea you can develop.
It's high time for the art world to admit that the avant-garde is dead. It was killed by my hero, Andy Warhol, who incorporated into his art all the gaudy commercial imagery of capitalism (like Campbell's soup cans) that most artists had stubbornly scorned.
Yes, sure the avant-garde is dead, but Andy Warhol is probably no more to blame than John Cage or Karlheinz Stockhausen. Also, note the strange missing causality here: the avant-garde was killed by "Andy Warhol, who incorporated ... gaudy commercial imagery..." But was it the imagery that killed the avant-garde? Or something else? Then she goes off on a long rant about how kids today need to get their hands dirty with the trades like wood-working. Then she swerves off into a sort of left-handed praise of capitalism and technology.

Good grief again: does no-one know how to write in academia these days? Just being able to state an idea and then argue for or against it would be so very, very refreshing. Look what Paglia has done here:  skipped around from one half-articulated thought to another finally ending up by tying herself in knots. What is she trying to say, the arts are a wasteland, but capitalism is the answer? But the iPhone has no soul? This is beyond mere incoherence. So, could someone explain to me why anyone reads Camille Paglia?

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