“We must relearn how to see,” says Camille Paglia, to “survive in this age of vertigo.” The path to renewal — sensual, intellectual, aesthetic — begins with art. Starting with a passionate plea for art history (which she argues has been, at least in part, “a victim of political cross fire” between stodgy conservatives and anti-religious, postmodern liberals), Paglia sketches, in 29 brief chapters, a series of milestones in the history of western art. From Queen Nefertari, whose tomb is rich with “elegant apparitions who still haunt us,” through Greek columns fashioned of women’s figures (“[t]heir dignity shows how the Greeks honored their gods — not through genuflection or self-abuse but through assertions of human value and pride”), Paglia vigorously interrogates images: What does this look like and why? What does this artistic choice tell us about the people who made it?
The cultural critic, who made her name with 1990’s “Sexual Personae,” is still interested in the way aesthetics both reveal and shape our cultural relationship with the carnal. At times this leads her astray — she bypasses significant image-makers like Kara Walker or Mark Bradford to celebrate Renee Cox and George Lucas — but it also grounds her manic intellectual energy in an argument that still feels relevant.