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Art demon
Camille Paglia talks (and talks and talks) about her new book on poetry ó and academic Ďass-lickersí and Ďliberal media elitesí had better respond intelligently for a change

ANYONE FAMILIAR with Camille Pagliaís rapid-fire delivery and take-no-prisoners polemics knows that she has a lot to say. Fifteen years after the publication of her provocative first book, Sexual Personae, the renowned ó and controversial ó scholar and critic continues to speak passionately on subjects ranging from politics to art, higher education to liberal media. In her latest book, Break, Blow, Burn (Pantheon), Paglia tackles the subject of poetry, offering thoughtful commentary on what she believes to be 43 of the best poems in the Western tradition.

Q: Tell me first why this book, and why now.

A: I spent five years on the book. When someoneís very much in the public eye, the pressures are enormous to churn the books out like sausage, to keep in the public eye. I felt, personally, that I had had as much publicity as anyone could ever want. The last five years Iíve been doing this book, I have been really, really reclusive and been very low-profile.

What Iím trying to do, partly, is to set an example for writers and aspiring artists and even performing artists ó anyone who works in some branch of arts and letters ó to take the time to really make sure that the product is quality and has staying power. Iíve tried to link up my work to some of the best history of commentary on art and literature. So I spent two years actually doing the writing. I spent two years just on the prose, to try to make it as accessible as possible to the general reader, and to young people, without losing the people who are already familiar with the poem.

Iím a great evangelist of popular culture, Iíve always been. And it cost me something. When I was at Yale Graduate School in í68 to í72, nobody took that seriously. They thought I was really not very solid, the fact that I was interested in movies and TV and astrology and all kinds of things. So I really paid a price for it in my career, that is, almost always being thought of as not serious. But I maintained that there is a bridge between mass media and the fine arts, or there should be a bridge. Eventually cultural studies came on the scene that made that idea acceptable, but I despise what calls [itself] cultural studies. Itís a wonderful phrase, but I despise what theyíve done with it. All it is is informed by British Marxism and the very censorious Frankfurt School, Adorno and so on. I mean, who cares about listening to these foreigners, especially male foreigners, about our popular culture? This is one of the great acts of genius of American culture: we created Hollywood and the entertainment industry; weíve swept the world with it, right? But hereís my dilemma: in the í90s, I started to observe its decline, with horror. I think I started noticing it after 1992; I felt that Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct was the last truly mythological work coming out of Hollywood, and that after that, itís been just this juvenility and special effects and dizzying editing and lack of development of script and stupid casting. Everythingís image, image, image, so that the pressure on young actors is terrible. I teach at an art school [University of the Arts, in Philadelphia], and itís terrible, that young people have to present an image when theyíre just learning their chops. Itís really sick.

Iím a great supporter of the Web. I feel that young people are rightly tuned into the Web. I think itís the absolute future. Itís just going to transform everything in culture. So I totally support it. But the end result is that step by step, the use of language is becoming very tinny. People are not taking time to write; they just blog or e-mail. You just write. You donít consider how youíre writing something, as you would in the old days when you wrote a letter to somebody that you knew they might save. So thereís a slow degeneration in the quality of language in America. I was determined to force these issues back into the public eye, and I wanted to use my particular celebrity to push this, and to say, "There are things that last." So the things that are in this book are things that have sustained me for all these decades.

Iíve tried to aim the book to both ends of the political spectrum, so I have religious poems ó George Herbert and John Donne ó and I have poems of radical social protest, like William Blake and so on. Iím trying to bring the audience together. Liberals have allowed themselves, in America, to become too snobby, sanctimonious, and pretentiously elite. I mean, liberals have got to wake up and stop hunkering in these sophisticated metropolitan ghettos that theyíre in, and come to the realization that they must address the general audience in the way that the great Hollywood studio system did. Masterpieces came out of Hollywood. My God, theyíre things that last, like Gone With the Wind ó Iím talking not necessarily about the racial things in it, which are very sensitive, but Iím talking about the performances and the music and the costumes. Thereís an emotional link with the general audience in that. So what Iím saying is, get out of the ghetto and decide, what do you favor? Do you just want to go around with a little badge saying, "Iím sophisticated, and those people are such rubes, those far-right people"? You want to do that? Okay, destroy the American arts, because thatís what youíre doing.

Iím a liberal Democrat. I voted for Kerry, I voted for Clinton twice, I voted for Jesse Jackson in the 1988 primary. Thereís a really depressing disconnect with how regular people really think, and how they live their lives. And I tried to keep up with it by listening to talk radio, even very conservative talk radio. Well, this failure of the liberal elite to take account of this incredible populist medium of talk radio meant a disaster for Kerry last year. Because I heard on talk radio in April about the Swift vet stuff. And it took that Boston-based campaign until August to try to deal with it. It was a runaway massacre that went on for months. I heard it for months; I thought, what is the matter with these people? The elite is totally out of touch. They want to scorn, "Oh, the demagogues of talk radio." Oh really, demagogues? Come on. There are demagogues on both sides; thatís politics. If youíre going to be president, you have to learn how to fight the fight, and Kerry didnít know. He didnít know how to respond, to talk to the people in a way that made them trust him. And Bush, oh my God, all of a sudden his campaign made him go out and take off his jacket and [roll up] his sleeves, and he was out there roaring with the populist energy. I thought, how did this happen?

The liberal elite of the two coasts, they donít understand what people are thinking. I want artists to start trying to get out of their mental cubicles. For great art, and important artistic statement, you should be aiming to communicate with the vast audience. I mean, I was looking for anti-war poems, and I found practically nothing that was a strong poem. Why are they so weak? Because theyíre snide, and theyíre preaching to the choir. What we need are strong anti-war poems that are written to the people who donít agree with you. That try to awaken the imagination of the people, about military incursions or the horror of war and all those things. We need the artist to be addressing everyone.

Iím also berating the far right, because I say, okay, we went into Iraq to save Western civilization? Well, excuse me, itís more than the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Bible. Itís also the Greco-Roman tradition of the arts that goes all the way back in poetry and the visual arts to 700 BC. Youíre always talking about getting back to basics and getting back to the canon and all that stuff. Well, you better put your money where your mouth is, and you better realize that there may be things in the history of Western art that donít quite fit with the Judeo-Christian scheme of things. You are really going to have to bite the bullet if you want a cultured society, as you claim; you better do some real studying of art.

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Issue Date: April 8 - 14, 2005
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