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?
Recently, a colleague invited me to participate in a panel discussion he had organized to spark faculty debate. However, when I saw the topic for discussion, I felt disheartened. It was yet another contentious assertion by Camille Paglia, this time published in the Wall Street Journal in October 2012, titled: “Can Capitalism Rescue Art?”
My colleague is deeply engaged in the discourse surrounding high and low culture, but from a perspective that valorizes low culture as inherently positive—seen as democratic, popular, and even rebelliously provocative—while casting high culture in a negative light as elitist and disconnected. Any criticism of high culture, particularly in the realm of art, would align with his views. However, I find myself unmoved by this reversal of the traditional binary opposition. Simply swapping the hierarchy and adopting the role of a transgressive populist defying the perceived narrow-mindedness of academic elites fails to resonate with me.
Here I found myself reluctantly thrust into a debate defending art against a backdrop where the terms were already heavily skewed in the opposite direction. Camille Paglia’s article had effectively asserted that art was either irrelevant or inherently flawed. How could I possibly challenge such a formidable argument against my position? After all, Paglia herself claims to be one of the most intelligent figures in the humanities. Who am I to oppose her assertion that art misses the mark while capitalism reigns supreme?
In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Paglia aimed to reassure readers of The Wall Street Journal that art holds little value and is essentially a barren landscape. She contends that critique has detached art and artists from the authentic cultural currents of our era, namely the vibrancy of capitalism. Paglia traces the decline of the visual arts back to the Renaissance, where art was closely intertwined with the Church, and painting held a prominent status as the premier genre. According to Paglia’s cursory overview of art history, two primary factors contribute to the demise of visual arts: a diminishing ideological framework that separates art from the dynamism of capitalism, and the overshadowing of painting by the multimedia revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Instead, she asserts that industrial design and architecture, particularly the work of renowned architects, now hold sway in contemporary culture.
Does Paglia genuinely hold these beliefs? In an interview, she appears to convince an interviewer, who perhaps takes her at face value, that her stance isn’t merely about favoring popular culture over high culture. While she acknowledges an affinity for popular culture, Paglia bemoans the absence of spirituality in contemporary art. She argues that unlike great works of art, designs like the iPhone lack a spiritual dimension. Moreover, she asserts that a society that neglects art risks losing its essence.
However, Paglia’s argument seems somewhat contradictory. On one hand, she claims that art is in decline and has become a barren wasteland, while design surpasses it. Yet, she also criticizes design for its inherent spiritual deficiency, suggesting that it cannot fulfill the same role as art in enriching society. This leaves her argument somewhat unclear and convoluted. In simplifying her viewpoint for the sake of debate, I distilled it to its core propositions, acknowledging the complexity of her conceptual stance.
Firstly, the act of condemning those who dissent from the prevailing societal norms evokes memories of the condemnations commonly seen during the Cold War era. This rhetoric resembles the language used by the Soviet regime when dealing with ideological dissent, labeling dissenters as “parasites,” “degenerates,” “revisionists,” “Titoists,” or “cosmopolitans.”
Secondly, even when artists earnestly attempt to celebrate the vibrancy of capitalism, such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, or Takashi Murakami, Paglia finMy third point connects the preceding two: It’s notable that according to Paglia, all significant cultural developments occurred during her own era. Subsequent events, both positive and negative, are evaluated based on how they measure up to the standards set during that pivotal period in human civilization—the time when Paglia herself came of age. Paglia tends to deploy derogatory terms when individuals or movements fail to meet the standards of that era, particularly in the realm of art, where Warhol is hailed as the last great artist. This reflects a form of generational narcissism rooted in the 1960s, wherein Paglia is simultaneously attuned to prescriptive tendencies in culture and society while also leveling charges of deviation and degeneracy based on the standards of her own formative years.ds their efforts lacking. In her view, these artists are often criticized, and she believes they do not possess the spiritual depth of artists like Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, or Mark Rothko.
To sum up: according to Paglia, contemporary art is lacking because it fails to engage with the predominant source of social energy—capitalism. Artists who attempt to capture capitalism in their work often fall short of creating truly exceptional art. Additionally, a society that fails to appreciate great art is deemed culturally bankrupt.
My fourth point centers on Paglia’s insinuation that capitalist societies struggle to foster great art. She suggests that art produced within capitalist frameworks, particularly since the 1960s, tends to be subpar. Paglia’s argument raises the question: Is art inherently flawed, or has capitalism hindered the development of exceptional art? Her assertion that “a society that forgets art risks losing its soul” further complicates matters.
Under Paglia’s framework, it’s plausible that capitalist societies may indeed undermine the potential for great art. However, this isn’t necessarily a definitive conclusion, but rather a potential consequence implied by her argument. While Paglia’s article promises insights on “how capitalism can save art,” it offers few tangible solutions. Consequently, we’re left to contemplate other aspects of society that contribute to its vitality. Critique, dissent, and a culture of questioning—features that Paglia dismisses as strategies for art—remain viable alternatives for fostering cultural vibrancy
Undoubtedly, contemporary art is inundated with what could be termed as “argument” art—pieces that prioritize conveying a message over visual complexity. This approach often leads to a formulaic or prescriptive style of art. However, since Time magazine named the anonymous protestor as their “person of the year” in December 2010/January 2011, dissenters like Ai Weiwei and the collective Pussy Riot have garnered significant acclaim. This raises the question: if dissent is considered negative, why do liberal democracies, compared to military dictatorships, perform better in conducting wars?
Contrary to common perception, dissent is not inherently negative; rather, it can be affirming. Renowned dissenters throughout history, such as Galileo, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., are recognized as pivotal figures in shaping our cultures. It’s perplexing how dissent is viewed as detrimental only in the realm of art, highlighting a high-level, confusing argument.
Paglia believes that contemporary art is fixated on the wrong approach, being overly enamored with the avant-garde while neglecting the quest for meaning—a sentiment shared by many in the twenty-first century. According to Paglia, the art world’s fixation on the past heroic exploits of the avant-garde is limiting progress. To express her spiritual yearning, Paglia assumes the role of a fearless contrarian, challenging the orthodoxies of political correctness. However, in a world where everyone has a platform to express their opinions, breaking through the cacophony requires adopting provocative tactics—to shock, outrage, or offend. Paglia emerges as an unapologetic dissenter with a penchant for avant-garde and transgressive expression, a stance she embraces in her own discourse but criticizes when it comes to art.