Author and professor Camille Paglia spoke of the importance of art in popular culture on Tuesday evening at the International House. The lecture was part of Paglia’s tour to promote her new book, Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems.
“The last time I was here was in 1996,” said Paglia, who is a former columnist for the online newsmagazine Salon.com. “I was appearing on Oprah to talk about sex and women, or something like that.” Paglia’s casual but pointed delivery established a conversational tone for the lecture.
Rather than talking about her book, Paglia began by commenting on American popular culture and its development. She claimed that since the early 1990s, popular culture has been diminishing in terms of depth and dimension, recounting that the popular culture of her youth in the 60s had more intellectual depth than it does currently. Paglia attributed this change to the fast-paced immediacy of the contemporary world, especially the Internet. “I feel that young people have been swallowed up now for the past 12 or 13 years by a popular culture that is snarky, smirky, and dominated by animation,” Paglia said.
She emphasized that the technological advent of the worldwide web is certainly a positive one, but that it comes with a price. “I do feel that young people are suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder, which partly comes from the rapid cutting and movement of information on the Web,” she said. “I feel education has failed to adjust to this new mode. Young people need to have some kind of counterforce that teaches them how to focus in order to teach them to study a great work of poetry.”
Halting her speech abruptly, Paglia turned to a Maroon photographer standing near the stage, inquiring, “Who are you and what are you doing?” Upon learning that the student was a photographer, Paglia said, “I think you’ve taken enough. You can go now.” The audience seemed shocked and amused by Paglia’s behavior, as she received a round of laughter.
Following this minor interlude, she began discussing her new book. According to Paglia, “The only antidote to the magic of images is the magic of words.” The book consists of a collection of poems by a variety of authors, as well as Paglia’s commentary. Each of the poems was carefully selected as a means of incorporating poetry and the fine arts into modern popular culture, Paglia’s response to the post-modern sentiment that has dominated the minds of American intellectuals for the past three decades. “I absolutely believe that art is the ultimate expression of any civilization, and that is reflected in the [poem] choices I made,” she said.
Paglia, a self-proclaimed Democrat, blamed American left-wing politics for the lack of fine arts in popular culture, saying, “I feel that the left has trashed art and vandalized art for the last three decades and that the left now has nothing left to offer.” She explained that the left has a “gaping spiritual hole” in it, and that art is the only thing that could fill this whole.
The talk concluded with a question and answer session, during which Paglia quickly cut off audience participators. She yelled at one questioner, saying, “Stop, stop, stop! You’ve got it all wrong!” Despite any embarrassment on the part of the chastised individual, the audience at large found Paglia entertaining, and gave her a huge round of applause at the end of the talk.