Andrew McNamara / Visual Culture

Tabloid Academia

When it comes to discussing art in newspapers, does the media’s emphasis on provocation merely reduce issues into straightforward oppositions, and at the cost of developed argument and consistency?

Tabloid Academia

Recently, a colleague sought to initiate some faculty debate and invited me to take part in the panel discussion he’d organised. When I saw the trigger for discussion, my heart sank. It was another of those interminable provocations by Camille Paglia, this time appearing in the Wall Street Journal of October 2012 under the banner: ‘How Capitalism Can Save Art?’ [1]

My colleague is heavily invested in the high-low culture debate, but from the reverse angle believing high culture is bad (read: elitist, out of touch) whereas low is good (read: democratic, popular, even provocatively unruly). So, any rebuke of high culture, especially art, would do the trick for him. Reversing this old binary opposition leaves me cold. It is easy to switch the hierarchy around and to assume the stance of the transgressive populist in defiance of the half-wit snobs and fuddy-duddies of academia.

So here I was being placed in the invidious position of participating in a debate to defend art in which the terms of debate were already highly skewed in the other direction. Art was bad, if not redundant; Paglia already made this clear in her article. How could I dispute the formidable evidence of the redundancy of my position? After all, Paglia is, by her own admission, one of the smartest people in the humanities. [2] Who am I to argue then if she tells us art gets it all wrong whereas capitalism gets it all right? In the wake of the global financial crisis, Paglia wants to assure The Wall Street Journal readers that art is a load of nonsense and a ‘wasteland.’ Critique leaves art and artists divorced ‘from the authentic cultural energies of our time’—namely, the vitality of capitalism. In the Renaissance, art was tied to the main power source, the Church, and painting also ruled as ‘the prestige genre.’ According to Paglia’s quick, schematic dash through art history, two factors spell the final doom of the visual arts: first, ‘a contraction in ideology,’ which removes art from the vitality of capitalism; and, second, painting has been sidelined by the ‘brash multimedia revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s.’ [3] Rather, industrial design and architecture (big name architects) is where it’s at today.

Does Paglia really believe all this? In one interview, Paglia manages to convince a rather credulous interviewer that she does not opt for simple cultural reversals (low over high); she likes popular culture, yes, but what she really laments is the loss of the spiritual in art. By contrast, design leaves us deficient: ‘there is no spiritual dimension to an iPhone, as there is to great works of art.’ Furthermore, she adds: ‘A society that forgets art risks losing its soul.’[4] Now, and maybe it’s just me, but I have trouble discerning her argument. Art has no future and has become a wasteland; design is better; yet design is perennially deficient because it lacks spiritual value; any society that forgets art is bankrupt. What exactly is she arguing? Perhaps I just couldn’t grasp the intricacy of her conceptual gymnastics, so, for the sake of the debate, I decided to simplify the provocation to the essential propositions. This is what I came up with – simple-minded as it may be.

First of all, the act of condemning anyone who disagrees with the predominant force of society resounds like the echo of the terrible condemnations routinely trotted during the Cold War. It sounds suspiciously like Soviet-speak when confronting ‘ideological diversion’ – that is, the only people who would defy the one true course of history and the resulting (Communist) society it yielded were ‘parasites’, ‘degenerates’, ‘revisionists’, ‘Titoists’, or ‘cosmopolitans’ (yes, that was a term of abuse too). [5] Second, even when artists faithfully strive to celebrate the vitality of capitalism – such as, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, or Takashi Murakami – then the outcome is no better. Paglia believes they all, as people say, suck. For her, these artists fall short of the spiritual gravitas of Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko.

My third point links the first two points: it is worth noting that everything significant that occurred in recent cultural history occurred in Paglia’s own heyday. Everything good or bad that has happened subsequently needs to be measured against the standard of how it meets the challenge of that pivotal time in human civilization when Paglia came of age. All the derogatory terms Paglia uses tend to arise when people fail that standard, as they invariably do – and this is especially true of art, with Warhol being the last great artist. This is 1960s’ generational narcissism. It explains the strange mix in Paglia: alert to proscriptive tendencies in culture and society as well as hurling charges of deviation and degeneracy from the standard of the 1960s.

Let’s capitulate: art is pretty hopeless these days because it turns its back on the key source of social vitality today – capitalism; artists who seek to epitomise capitalism in art fail to create great art; a society that fails to appreciate great art is bankrupt. Fourth point: I’m not sure about you, but I am getting the impression that Paglia is more or less implying that capitalist societies fail to produce great art. Capitalist art is bad art – or at least capitalist art since the 1960s has been bad. Paglia seems to have produced a chicken-or-the-egg argument: Is art bad or have capitalist societies undermined the possibility of great art? (Recall Paglia’s dictum: ‘A society that forgets art risks losing its soul.’) [6] If great art cannot be produced in such a society, does this tell us something about the deficiencies of our great capitalist reality?

Given the conditions of Paglia’s argument, one possibility is indeed that capitalist societies undermine the possibility of great art. I am not saying this is true; it is merely a feasible consequence (albeit inadvertently) of her argument. The title of Paglia’s article promises, ‘how capitalism can save art’, yet, it offers little in the way of solutions, so we’re left to ponder what other features of our society people regard as producing its vitality. The answer that Paglia resolutely dismisses is critique – or dissent or a questioning culture (well, she dismisses it as a strategy for art, but clearly not for herself).

There is no doubt that contemporary art today suffers from a surfeit of ‘argument’ art, art that looks more proscriptive than visually challenging. An art by numbers – or art by argument – type of approach. At the same time, since Time magazine made the anonymous protestor their ‘person of the year’ in December 2010/January 2011, the most acclaimed artists have been dissenters, such as Ai Weiwei or the collective Pussy Riot. If dissent is so bad, then how come, as one recent book has reminded us, liberal democracies do better than military dictatorships in conducting wars? [7] Dissent is, contrary to all impressions, affirmative rather than negative and the ‘honour role of famous dissenters’ –Galileo, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. – are acknowledged as being pivotal for our cultures, even by genuine American capitalist advocates such as Paglia. [8] It is odd though how dissent is regarded as inimical only when it comes to art, but this is a high-level, confusing argument.

The issue though is Paglia thinks art is trapped in the wrong mode – being mesmerised by the avant-garde, and forgetting that everyone in the twentieth-first century is ‘looking for meaning, not subverting it. The art world, mesmerised by the heroic annals of the old avant-garde, is living in the past.’ [9] So how does Paglia display her spiritual yearning? She plays the role of the fearless contrarian, if not the misanthrope, piercing the pieties of political correctness in a fashion that has now become routine and expected, if not shallow. Yet, in today’s world – where everybody can ‘publish’, in which opinion and critical reflection become blurred – how does one break through and make oneself heard within this cacophony? One way to jostle for attention is to go for the agent provocateur mode: shock, outrage, offend – in short, to be scandalous. In a word, Paglia is a remorseless dissenter with an avant-garde, transgressive bent: she likes this in her own pronouncements, but not when it comes to art.

I’m going to call this contrarian, quasi-avant-garde mode for what it is: namely tabloid academia. Rather than being bold and audacious, I believe our culture and societies are being swamped by tabloid discussion at far too many levels. It is like the Fox News of intellectual discussion. One of the traps of the tabloid debates Paglia practises is that people respond by conceding that aspects of her argument may ring true, even though they disagree with it overall. I may be a little simplistic here, but I think that if the overall argument is wrong, then the snippets of correctness are inconsequential. When shooting from the hip, then all the occasional insight along the way reveals is that anybody can touch on the truth now and again. It is dangerous to concede debate to terms set by whoever can capture attention by saying the most outrageous or stupid things. This tabloid mode is ill-befitting of one of the smartest people in the world.

A feature of tabloid academia and arguments is the emphasis on provocation, at the cost of developed argument, and consistency. Impact is everything and nothing; it is consumed by the urge to grab attention within a cacophony of voices, texts, blogs, opinions, conspiracy theorists, etc. In the tabloid view, it is essential to capture attention and to contrive the simplification of issues into straightforward oppositions – stark, blunt choices; good versus bad – and one must become an advocate of and for these simple choices. For someone of Paglia’s intellect, it’s all a little too simplistic. It amounts to a diminution of any complexity or paradox. Even worse still, it has become too predictable, too obvious in its contrarian shock value.

On the day we eventually held our debate, the saddest and most apt point was made by an audience member, who concluded that it was only when the discussion moved beyond the framework set by Paglia’s provocation that the debate became truly interesting and compelling. Tabloid provocation had established discussion on such a poor footing that it took a long time for us to recover ground, she concluded. Paglia would probably laugh. In all likelihood, she has already forgotten The Wall Street Journal piece (well, it was published in October) and moved on to further provocations. Each of these is likely as disposable as the other, which is probably the point she wishes to make about celebrity culture and intellectual inquiry under commodity capitalism. I think that audience member’s summation is fitting though: the problem with tabloid academia is that it takes so long to restore debate to a sufficient level of depth and conceptual ingenuity in the wake of pieces such as those offered up by Paglia. Yet, the real problem arises when people start taking tabloid provocations as the standard for intellectual inquiry and debate just because they stick out. Then the academic equivalent of the belch will become our gold standard. ■

Andrew McNamara heads Visual Arts in the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT (Queensland University of Technology), Australia.

Image courtesy of kalosma.

[1] Camille Paglia, ‘How Capitalism Can Save Art,’ The Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2012, (Accessed 7 March 2013)

[2] In an interview under the title, ‘I Don’t Like Lesbians At All. They Don’t Like Me and I Don’t Like Them,’ Paglia’s interviewer, Christina Patterson, seeks to throw some of her more audacious quotes back at her: ‘Is she, I say, just to make clear, one of the smartest people in the world? ‘Well,’ she says, ‘in the humanities I am.” Refer The Independent, Saturday 25 August 2012. (Accessed April 13, 2013)

[3] Paglia, ‘How Capitalism Can Save Art,’ The Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2012.

[4] Emily Esfahani Smith, ‘For Camille Paglia, the Spiritual Quest Defines all Great Art,’ The Daily Beast, December 17, 2012. (Accessed January 11, 2013).

[5] For an account of how such terms for political degeneracy were applied in the Soviet bloc after World War Two, refer Chapter VI of Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945.

[6] What is the soul of a society? And why does Paglia remind readers of The Wall Street Journal about this crucial quality and its lack? These essential questions are all for a reader to discern the answers.

[7] Refer the argument of Cass Sunstein, Why Societies Need Dissent (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[8] Again the examples are Sustein’s.

[9] Paglia, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars (New York: Random House, 2012), cited in Patterson, ‘I Don’t Like Lesbians At All,’ The Independent, Saturday 25 August 2012.

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