Camille Paglia: “Postmodernism is a plague upon the mind and the heart”

Forget about the trivial. Feminism, pop culture, mainstream singers, subjects which you discuss frequently. The american philosopher Camille Paglia has a lot more to offer, considering she is one of the most interesting intellectuals in action in the global public debate. The range of issues she rules enchants even her opponents, always with an energetic and fast speech. That is because the essayist, professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, is not one to lack visceral statements – when not harsh – to expose her thoughts. Whether they are about avant-garde art, painters, writers or filmmakers, Paglia speaks eloquently and deeply about everything: from Anthony Van Dyck, to George Lucas, to Andy Warhol and T.S. Eliot. Exclusively for the journalist Eliana de Castro, Camille Paglia talks about Art in postmodernity, exploring the religious intervention throughout history, the contemplation in the era of technologies and a possible way out for an education with less intolerance religion wise. Simply a must see!

Do you want to read the Portuguese version? Click here.

Camille Paglia.

In Arts, what is the worst symptom of postmodernity?
Oppositional avant-garde art, which attacked the cultural, political, and religious establishment, was born in the rebellion of High Romanticism in the late eighteenth century (1700’s). There were many great heroes of this dissident movement who made enormous sacrifices for it and who endured ridicule and poverty, such as the painters Courbet, Monet, and Jackson Pollock. However, the avant-garde, in my opinion, ended with Andy Warhol, who had an enormous influence on me when I was in college. When Pop Art embraced commercial advertising and Hollywood stars, the oppositional formula of avant-garde art was dead and finished. What is called “postmodernism” began after Pop Art. It is a term that I completely reject as utterly meaningless. There is no such thing as postmodernism. We remain in the era of modernism, which began in the early twentieth century with the Cubism of Picasso, the Dada of Duchamp, and German Expressionism. Everything that calls itself postmodernism was already contained and defined in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, with its sterile landscape littered with disconnected fragments of the cultural past.

Then, why was the title postmodernism given?
Postmodernism as a phenomenon is a subset to post-structuralism, which borrowed the old and outmoded linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure to postulate that everything that we know (or think we know) is mediated through language. This absurd claim — which can be instantly disproven by observing the daily lives of sculptors, painters, and dancers, all of whom are grounded in the material realm — became widespread in universities by the 1970s and has now poisoned the art world too. Post-structuralism is a pose of cynical irony, “deconstructing” and destabilizing and constantly alleging that every art work ultimately subverts itself. Post-structuralism denies there is any order or meaning in history — which is manifestly false when we examine the evolution of styles in the history of art. For example, neoclassicism, as a revival of Greco-Roman humanism, constitutes an obvious refutation of poststructuralist clichés.

“The sneering disdain that so many secular intellectuals express for religion is a stupidity that has crippled the imaginations of our aspiring young artists everywhere. There is only one solution, which remains unchanged since the days of Socrates:  each individual is responsible for his or her education and enlightenment.”


Camille Paglia

What were the other influences?
Postmodernism has also been impacted by the Frankfurt School of analysis of popular culture —another boringly outmoded system, created in the 1930s even before the birth of television! The Frankfurt School, based on Marxism, is full of insulting assumptions about modern media: it postulates that the mass audience of ordinary people are stupid and passive and easily brainwashed by evil, conspiratorial media empires. This is an idiotic view of popular culture. The exact opposite is the truth: the people decide what they like — in movies, television, or music — and they vote for it with their money. Media empires are commercial operations that seek only profits. Hence it is the media empires themselves that are passive to outside forces — not the people, who hold the real power. Both the Frankfurt School and post-structuralism are arrogant and elitist, full of contempt for the common people that they claim to defend.

And what are the results of all this?
The end result of four decades of postmodernism permeating the art world is that there is very little interesting or important work being done right now in the fine arts. Irony was a bold and creative posture when Duchamp did it, but it is now an utterly banal, exhausted, and tedious strategy. Young artists have been taught to be “cool” and “hip” and thus painfully self-conscious. They are not encouraged to be enthusiastic, emotional, and visionary. They have been cut off from artistic tradition by the crippled skepticism about history that they have been taught by ignorant and solipsistic postmodernists. In short, the art world will never revive until postmodernism fades away.  Postmodernism is a plague upon the mind and the heart.

With technology transforming modern life, shouldn’t be more time available to contemplation?
The industrial revolution produced many magical labor-saving mechanisms that were crucial to the advance of women in modern society. For example, the typewriter, introduced in the nineteenth century (1800’s), allowed women to obtain jobs in business offices, where men had always been the copyists of documents, working with pen and ink. Women’s smaller hands and greater dexterity made them very expert at the typewriter. This job of secretary, which had once been an entirely male domain, was at first very liberating for women, who could now live independently and support themselves financially, without relying on father or husband. Hence it is very ironic that by the middle of the twentieth century, the job of secretary was denounced as a low-paying trap for women, who now aspired to managerial positions of power in the office.

Are there any other “magical devices”?
Other wonderful labor-saving devices were the automatic laundry washer and dryer, which liberated women from having to wash laundry by hand, a very slow and exhausting process. But now that too has become a kind of trap, an imprisonment in the isolation of the affluent bourgeois home, because women of the agrarian era once enjoyed group solidarity in carrying the laundry to wash at the riverside. Indeed, the happy noise and singing of young women doing the laundry is exactly what wakes up the shipwrecked Odysseus, marooned on the shore of Phaeacia in Homer’s epic poem.

Did they somehow become paradoxes?
This pattern of modern technology arriving as a liberating gift but later turning into an imprisoning curse is exactly what has occurred in the digital world. The personal computer has freed us from the typewriter, and the Internet has brought us the miracle of instantaneous global communications. However, the professional class everywhere have become slaves of their computers and iPhones, which intrude into every minute of our lives. Instead of having more time for contemplation, we have less. There is no pause, no rest, no possibility for the activation and nurturance of an internal rhythm, as we are bombarded by impulsive trivialities from every side. We are condemned to a perpetual state of jumpy, nervous anxiety. Social media have become a massive addiction for young people in particular, who must constantly check their iPhones at every moment of the day. There is no doubt that, under the impact of digital technology, the human brain is being reshaped in ways that are still unclear. Information has exploded, but it is pure data, without broader vision or insight. The question remains: will there be room for art in the digital future?

Is the religious sense of mankind weakening?  Does religion still have the strength to inspire Art?
Only the myopic intellectuals of the Western world believe that religion is weakening. Religious belief is intensifying in the Evangelical movement of Protestantism, which is spreading into once entirely Catholic nations, including Brazil. And Islamic fundamentalism, with its fanatical jihadist minority, is increasing throughout the world. Certainly the mainstream denominations of Protestantism, such as the Episcopalians and Presbyterians, are declining in importance, as their congregations became affluent and genteel and therefore too “sophisticated” for ardent religion. But there is a long history of revivalism in religion, when passionate belief expressed in highly emotional form sets everything on fire. There was a “Great Awakening”, for example, which swept through the United States in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (1700s and 1800s).

The truth is that secular humanism, which began with the revival of Greco-Roman culture at the Italian Renaissance, has become sterile and nihilistic. Secular humanism once offered art as a substitute for orthodox, puritanical religion. But today’s intellectuals, intoxicated with the pretentious, contorted jargon of post-structuralism and postmodernism, no longer believe in art. They believe in nothing, and thus they have created a cultural vacuum that is being filled only by popular culture, which itself has sadly degenerated in quality and depth over the past three decades. Although I am an atheist, I respect all religions immensely, and I find the symbols and beliefs of religion tremendously inspiring. Religion has a crucial metaphysical dimension, a vision of the universe and of human existence that is completely missing from the narrow political concepts forged by Marxism, which sees only society. One reason for the banality and mediocrity of so much contemporary art is that most artists no longer have an instinct for spirituality.

Is it possible to understand art without understanding religion?
Many of the world’s greatest art and cultural landmarks were inspired by religion. It is literally impossible for anyone to understand the totality of art without also respecting religion. However, whether religion will produce significant art in the present or future is a difficult question. First of all, Protestantism was iconoclastic from the start:  the Protestant Reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, believed that paintings and sculpture in the medieval Catholic Church were heretical examples of idolatry and had to be destroyed. Evangelical Christianity remains oriented toward the congregational singing endorsed by Martin Luther (who also wrote hymns), but it does not embrace or encourage the visual arts except in the most minor way. Islam is even more conservative, with image-making being as strictly limited as it was in the Old Testament era of the Hebrew patriarchs. Hence, in 2001, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban destroyed the colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, and in early 2015, Islamic State jihadists destroyed ancient Assyrian sculptures in Iraq.

Is there a way out?
Twenty-five years ago, I proposed that the great world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judeo-Christianity, and Islam) should be placed at the heart of the educational curriculum in every nation. The central texts, art, and sacred places and architecture of each religion would be studied by everyone. That is the only way to achieve true understanding of the history and peoples of the world. However, my proposal, if it was ever advanced in the future, would probably be defeated from two directions. Religious conservatives would fiercely object to other religions being given equal status with their own, and Leftists would oppose the teaching of religion in the classroom as a violation of their own rigid secular dogma. The sneering disdain that so many secular intellectuals express for religion is a stupidity that has crippled the imaginations of our aspiring young artists everywhere. There is only one solution, which remains unchanged since the days of Socrates:  each individual is responsible for his or her education and enlightenment.

Eliana de Castro Escrito por:

Fundadora da FAUSTO, é escritora, mestre em Ciência da Religião e autora do romance NANA.