Thursday, March 15, 2007

Camille Paglia on C-SPAN: On the Arts and Religion

C-SPAN: American Perspectives has posted the video of a lecture by the always stimulating Camille Paglia at Colorado College last month. The lecture, delivered in an atypically moderated and enunciated style (cf. Jonathan Edwards' delivery of Sinners), argues for the centrality of religion in contemporary education by tracing the dynamic interplay between art and religion from the Reformation on, focused principally on the United States. Of particular fascination for me was her exploration of the legacy of hymns - hymnity - in American culture.

The crux of her argument is that without an educated understanding of the relationship between relgion and art, there is little hope for cultural meaning, for development, or for the production of defining and sustaining masterworks in either field.

As a matter of wishful thinking, while I was listening, I wondered, as many likely do, about the publication of Sexual Personae II (an issue she addresses in the final Q&A, stating it is no longer relevant - except as elegy). The examination of recent art world controversies - Serrano, Maplethorp, Ofili - in the overall context of her lecture added good fuel to the fire to see these ideas explored on a much larger canvas and in much greater detail.

The body of the lecture runs about an hour. After that, she steps from behind the podium to take questions. In a startling and delightful transformation, she suddenly becomes a hyper-intellectual improvisational stand-up comedian, with all of her natural Martin Scorsese-on-speed vocal mannerisms in full effect. Regardless of what you may think of her ideas regarding art and religion, it is worth that hour of lecture for the 40 minutes of dazzlingly funny, deliciously hectoring performance at the end.

(The images above were all captured from the Q&A. The iconic resonance of the final image amuses me greatly.)

From Paglia's "provisional" essay, Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s, which explores many of the themes of this current lecture:

[...] By the 1980s, during the conservative administrations of Ronald Reagan, an artist's path to instant success was to satirize or profane Christian iconography. Warfare erupted in 1989 over "Piss Christ," a misty photograph by the American Andres Serrano of a wood and plastic crucifix submerged in a Plexiglas tank of his own urine, and then a decade later over a 1996 collage of the Virgin Mary by the British-Nigerian Chris Ofili, who adorned the Madonna with breasts of elephant dung and ringed her with pasted-on photos of female genitalia clipped from pornographic magazines. The Ofili painting made hardly a ripple in London but caused an explosion in the US in 1999 when it was exhibited, with a deplorable lack of basic curatorial support, by the Brooklyn Museum. The uproar in all such cases was fomented by grandstanding politicians with agendas of their own: New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, for example, outrageously moved to cut off the Brooklyn Museum's public funding. Nevertheless, the ultimate responsibility for this continuing rancor rests with the arts community, who are fixed in an elitist mind-set that automatically defines religion as reactionary and unenlightened. Federal funding of the arts, already minuscule in the US, has been even further diminished because of the needlessly offensive way that religion has been treated in such incidents.

This cultural stalemate was aggravated, I contend, by the disappearance of voices from the sixties religious revolution. Even counterculture agnostics had respected the cosmic expansiveness of religious vision. There was also widespread ecumenical interest at the time in harmonizing world religions. The primary guide in this new syncretism was Carl Jung, who was the son of a Protestant minister and who began to study Asian thought in depth after his break with Freud in 1913. Jung's theory of the collective unconscious was partly derived from the Hindu concept of samskaras, the residue of past lifetimes. His interdisciplinary interpretation of culture was also influenced by Sir James George Frazer's multi-volumed work of classical anthropology, The Golden Bough (1890-1915). Jung revealed the poetry and philosophy in the rituals and iconography of world religions. But Jungian thought had little impact on post-sixties American academe, thanks to the invasion of European theory. French poststructuralism, the Frankfurt School, and British cultural studies all follow the Marxist line that religion is "the opiate of the masses." The end result was that, by the eighties, the claim that great art has a spiritual meaning was no longer taken seriously-and was positively perilous to anyone seeking employment or promotion in the humanities departments of major American universities.

[...] Study of the major world religions (including Islam) is the key to politics as well as art. As an atheist who worships only nature, I view religions as vast symbol-systems far more challenging and complex than poststructuralism, with its myopic focus on social structures. Poststructuralism has no metaphysics and is therefore incapable of spirituality or sublimity. There has been wave after wave of influences from Asian religion over the century and a half since Emerson and Madame Blavatsky, but the resultant New Age movement is choked with debris-with trivia, silliness, mumbo-jumbo, flimflam, and outright falsehoods. The first step in any solution is a return to origins-to the primary texts of sacred literature, supported by art history and archaeology.

The religious impulse of the sixties must be rescued from the wreckage and redeemed. The exposure to Hinduism and Buddhism that my generation had to get haphazardly from contemporary literature and music should be formalized and standardized for basic education. What students need to negotiate their way through the New Age fog is scholarly knowledge of ancient and medieval history, from early pagan nature cults through the embattled consolidation of Christian theology. Teaching religion as culture rather than as morality also gives students the intellectual freedom to find the ethical principles at the heart of every religion.


AlegraMarcel said...

THe iconic resonance of ALL those images are greatly amusing. Thanks!

BTW, do you know where I can find her article (in full) from some fashion magazine about Britney Spears showing her giny as compared to MADonna's puritan seriousness?

Erich Kuersten said...

Thanks for this awesome post. One of the main flaws of Sexual Personae is her goddess of flawless acumen and rigorous academic research pose is undone since she spends so much time in the book talking about what she'll be talking about in Sexual Personae II, all the elegant chapters on Keith Richards we were promised, where are they??