Camille Paglia on the Visual Arts in America Today

Camille Paglia writes an essay in the weekend Wall Street Journal Review on the state of the visual arts in America today (seems to be open access on the website).  As I imagine is true of many readers, I blow hot and cold on Paglia; some things are dead on and others dead misses, but such are the wages of volatility.  This seems to me one of her better pieces.  She starts by saying that her critique is specific to painting and sculpture, not performance genres such as opera, theatre, music or dance or, for that matter, architecture.  In this specific domain of visual art, however, she says that “no major figure of profound influence has emerged … since the waning of Pop Art and the birth of Minimalism in the early 1970s.”  I’m sure she will be disputed on this point, but since that will depend upon “major” and “profound,” better to move along to her later remarks.

The most interesting of which is not so much her criticism of the incorporation of aesthetic “theory” as such into art, rather than keeping it as a category of criticism; this is something she shares with many critics.  It is, rather, her account of how this comes about in the culture of the visual fine arts, in its high art sense, as its practitioners’ bourgeois culture itself evolves away from anything resembling manual labor, arts, skills, or culture.

Our woefully shrunken industrial base means that today’s college-bound young people rarely have direct contact any longer with the manual trades, which share skills, methods and materials with artistic workmanship.  Warhol, for example, grew up in industrial Pittsburgh and borrowed the commercial process of silk-screening for his art-making at the Factory, as he called his New York studio. With the shift of manufacturing overseas, an overwhelming number of America’s old factory cities and towns have lost businesses and population and are struggling to stave off disrepair. That is certainly true of my birthplace, the once-bustling upstate town of Endicott, N.Y., to which my family immigrated to work in the now-vanished shoe factories. Manual labor was both a norm and an ideal in that era, when tools, machinery and industrial supplies dominated daily life.

For the [fine] arts to revive in the U.S., young artists must be rescued from their sanitized middle-class backgrounds. We need a revalorization of the trades that would allow students to enter those fields without social prejudice (which often emanates from parents eager for the false cachet of an Ivy League sticker on the car). Among my students at art schools, for example, have been virtuoso woodworkers who were already earning income as craft furniture-makers. Artists should learn to see themselves as entrepreneurs. Creativity is in fact flourishing untrammeled in the applied arts, above all industrial design.

Paglia goes on to a variety of observations about fine arts and capitalism, industrial design and the aesthetics of technology.  There are parts of the discussion that I think right and others wrong – the parts I think wrong are mostly claims about capitalism and art that seem to me too sweeping – but I thought it a worthwhile read.


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