Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays

Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays

by Camille Paglia

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A collection of twenty of Paglia's out-spoken essays on contemporary issues in America's ongoing cultural debate such as Anita Hill, Robert Mapplethorpe, the beauty myth, and the decline of education in America.

From the Trade Paperback edition.  See more details below


A collection of twenty of Paglia's out-spoken essays on contemporary issues in America's ongoing cultural debate such as Anita Hill, Robert Mapplethorpe, the beauty myth, and the decline of education in America.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Provocative cultural critic Paglia (Sexual Personas) here offers 21 previously published essays and interviews that celebrate pop culture while trashing feminism and academic theory. Her paeans to Madonna, tributes to Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, and discussions of rock music and bodybuilding include attacks on the prudery of old guard establishment feminists, while her reviews of scholarly works on cross-dressing and gay history trumpet Paglia's contention that today's intellectuals refuse to acknowledge the dark, immutable powers of sexual drive. Reverence for these powers led Paglia to take her controversial stand, fully documented here, against sympathy for victims of date rape. Paglia lacks the subtlety and decorum of the very scholars--from Freud and Jung to Leslie Fiedier--whom she claims as her forerunners; she instead resembles the rock stars whom she so venerates, stripped of their capacity for self-mockery. Yet for all their faults, her essays engage with an ambitious range of art and ideas, her invocation of primal sexuality adding a missing element to critical debates. While she should be taken with a truckful of road salt, Paglia should not be ignored. Author tour. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Paglia (humanities, Univ. of the Arts), the controversial author of Sexual Personae (Yale Univ. Pr., 1990), here offers 12 recent essays on popular culture, sexuality, feminism, and educational reform. All but three of these impassioned diatribes were previously published, including her brazen attack on humanities education (``Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders''), the Newsweek article in which she dismisses the phenomenon of date rape, and her New York Times essay on Madonna as a feminist. Paglia's vehemence and fearless expression of unpopular opinions are refreshing yet often maddening, as when she lapses into unsupported generalizations (battered women stay with their husbands ``because the sex is very hot''), absurd enthusiasms (she ``worships'' television), or self-aggrandizing egotism (``before feminism was, Paglia was!''). Furthermore, the new material is repetitive (``The MIT Lecture'') or disappointing (``East and West,'' a choppy set of Paglia's course notes). Paglia is never boring, however, and cannot fail to challenge and ignite readers. Recommended for informed readers.-- Ellen Finnie Duranceau, MIT Lib.
Stuart Whitwell
[FOCUS]""Sexual Personae" seeks to demonstrate the unity and continuity of Western culture," Paglia writes in her preface to that great and now famous work; "something that has inspired little belief in the period since before World War One." This sentence, though little quoted, is perhaps as important as any she has written because it gives a hint that after half a century of chewing on the bones left by early modernism, we are finally getting on to something original and daring. Paglia is probably the greatest critic to emerge from this country in 20 or 30 years. She has suddenly thrown a thunderbolt into the center of a tritely liberal intelligentsia and sent everyone running. "Conservative!" "Woman-hater!" "Self-promoter!" have come the anguished cries of academics and political leaders unused to what was once called thinking. But it will not do. As wrong as Paglia may be about a great many things, she cannot be dismissed with cheap ad hominem sneers and slogans. This woman not only has the instincts and toughness of a street fighter, she also has ideas. Chest-beating does not impress her But before we get down to examining the battle itself, we need to pause for a second on the significance of the words "unity and continuity of Western culture"; for no great vision can exist without this sense of unity and direction, and probably no great art, either--which is why, for the greater part of this century, we have had neither. Read the essays of T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, or Virginia Woolf (just to pick one small corner of the world), and you will see how, 60 years ago, broad and sweeping ideas were thrown down like gauntlets before everyone who could read. And see, now, what we have in their place: narrow quarrels over definitions and procedure. In science, caution, emotional neutrality, and narrow focus are virtues. But in the humanities they are deadly. Indeed, the adoption of these values has filled our universities with the sort of people Paglia calls "nerds," "toadies," and "milquetoasts." Strong words, but anyone who has spent much time in a university or two will know what she means So, these are her enemies. But now to the book, "Sex, Art, and American Culture," and its themes. They are, summarized crudely, as follows 1. Biology endowed men with hormones for aggression so they could throw themselves against the heavy stasis of nature and women. Sex is the field of battle; de Sade, Baudelaire, and Freud are our guides to what sex means 2. Repulsed by this truth, the dreamy idealists of the late Enlightenment began a massive movement of denial. The heirs to this movement are today's liberals, who, even after the excesses of the 1960s, continue to kid themselves that people are naturally good, that sex is a variety of nurturing, and that the only evil in the world is that which flows from those "imperialists" (almost exculsively Western white males) who have given in to their worst (in reality, natural) impulses 3. While liberals and conservatives were bickering over how to deal with the historical changes brought about by the collapse of religious authority, the rise of democracy, and the furious pace of technological evolution, pop culture has risen up like a tidal wave and changed the world so dramatically that the old quarrels of liberals and conservatives now look facile and outdated 4. The nature of pop culture is essentially pagan and romantic. Unconsciously drawing together strands that go back to the beginning of culture, it celebrates sex, bawdiness, visual splendor, libertarianism, imagination, disjointedness, intuition, energy, and power. In the modern world, high culture has little, if anything, to say. Both film and rock music are more sweeping and profound If the reader can keep these four overarching themes in mind, the essays, lectures, and op-ed pieces that make up "Sex, Art, and American Culture" will begin to seem less like a fireworks display and more like a concerted effort to shift the intellectual focus of twentieth-century thought. People seem amazed that the same woman who can write so knowledgeably about Sappho and homosexuality in ancient Greece can engage herself so fully in the career of Elizabeth Taylor. They seem amazed that, only minutes after waxing eloquently about Madonna's videos, she can turn with equal passion (venom, in this case) to the negative influence of "fraudulent" French academics like Lacan and Foucault. But it all coheres. This is not the raving of a self-promoting madwoman. It is the energetic force of a stored-up vision thrashing against the walls of decorum and restraint True, Paglia likes to goad. But it would be facile to say her purpose is merely to stir up debate. She has the mad intensity of a prophet. "I am radically pro-pornography and pro-prostitution," she says, not because she hates middle-class morality but because she has studied the religious and psychological history of those two institutions and believes they are essential to society's health. Feminists, of course, hate her because she ridicules the mindless propaganda of books like "The Beauty Myth" and believes feminism has a "man problem"--or, rather, a problem with sex. Does she go too far when she says that the hysteria about sexual harrassment and date rape threaten to drive women back into the frilly ghetto of dependency and helplessness, that sex is always conflict and gets much of its sexiness from its danger? Perhaps we should not be so quick to peck at her and bring her down to our size. "The only thing they will remember about my enemies," she said in an interview not included in this book, "is the nasty things I say about them." Strong stuff for our weak stomachs, no doubt. But in the end, she may be right.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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