Camille Paglia: How Capitalism Can Save Art –

Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia (Photo credit: Ann Althouse)

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Camille Paglia. She’s one of my favorite commentators on all sorts of things from sex to art to design. To be honest, I often disagree with her, which is not surprising since she is a liberal libertarian but, what I love is that she thinks, and writes, what she thinks, fearlessly. Agree or not, she always makes a case for what she thinks.

In this case where she takes on the vapidness of contemporary visual arts, I’m pretty much inclined to agree with her. But read her for yourselves.

Does art have a future? Performance genres like opera, theater, music and dance are thriving all over the world, but the visual arts have been in slow decline for nearly 40 years. No major figure of profound influence has emerged in painting or sculpture since the waning of Pop Art and the birth of Minimalism in the early 1970s.

Alex Nabaum
Warhol grew up in industrial Pittsburgh. Today’s college-bound rarely have direct contact with the manual trades.

Yet work of bold originality and stunning beauty continues to be done in architecture, a frankly commercial field. Outstanding examples are Frank Gehry‘s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, Rem Koolhaas‘s CCTV headquarters in Beijing and Zaha Hadid‘s London Aquatic Center for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

What has sapped artistic creativity and innovation in the arts? Two major causes can be identified, one relating to an expansion of form and the other to a contraction of ideology.

Painting was the prestige genre in the fine arts from the Renaissance on. But painting was dethroned by the brash multimedia revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Permanence faded as a goal of art-making.

But there is a larger question: What do contemporary artists have to say, and to whom are they saying it? Unfortunately, too many artists have lost touch with the general audience and have retreated to an airless echo chamber. The art world, like humanities faculties, suffers from a monolithic political orthodoxy—an upper-middle-class liberalism far from the fiery antiestablishment leftism of the 1960s. (I am speaking as a libertarian Democrat who voted for Barack Obama in 2008.)


For the 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. Over the past 20 years, I have noticed that the most flexible, dynamic, inquisitive minds among my students have been industrial design majors. Industrial designers are bracingly free of ideology and cant. The industrial designer is trained to be a clear-eyed observer of the commercial world—which, like it or not, is modern reality.

Capitalism has its weaknesses.[]

Young people today are avidly immersed in this hyper-technological environment, where their primary aesthetic experiences are derived from beautifully engineered industrial design. Personalized hand-held devices are their letters, diaries, telephones and newspapers, as well as their round-the-clock conduits for music, videos and movies. But there is no spiritual dimension to an iPhone, as there is to great works of art.

Thus we live in a strange and contradictory culture, where the most talented college students are ideologically indoctrinated with contempt for the economic system that made their freedom, comforts and privileges possible. In the realm of arts and letters, religion is dismissed as reactionary and unhip. The spiritual language even of major abstract artists like Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko is ignored or suppressed.

Thus young artists have been betrayed and stunted by their elders before their careers have even begun. Is it any wonder that our fine arts have become a wasteland?

—Ms. Paglia is University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her sixth book, “Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars,” will be published Oct. 16 by Pantheon.

A version of this article appeared October 6, 2012, on page C3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: How Capitalism Can Save Art.

Read the entire article, I’d be very interested in what you think. Camille Paglia: How Capitalism Can Save Art –


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22 Responses to Camille Paglia: How Capitalism Can Save Art –

  1. Freedom, by the way says:

    All art & creativity is more robust through rich, varied experiences. I’m not sure I buy her argument about the growth of visual arts being stunted because of “middle class” environs, technology, and lack of contact with the trades. I have been to some regional juried art shows recently and I think there are great bursts of creativity happening. Artists are using all types of materials in fascinating ways to make sculptures, mobiles, wall art and more. Perhaps the bigger question is–why isn’t “the art world” doing a better job of discovering new talent? Maybe we have entered a phase of less traditional art and more art dependent upon technology. But I’m not sure that means we’re in a void.


    • That’s what I like about her, she makes you think. In many ways I don’t think she means the same thing as we do when she talks about the middle class-I think she talking about the urban upper middle to lower upper class on the coasts because I, like you Freedom, see quite a lot of creativity around. But I don’t see it in the cities, in the big art shows and museums and such. I think they have built a bubble and I think she has a point about academic ultra-orthodoxy as well.

      I think art has always to a great extent been dependent on technology.

      But, like you said, maybe!


  2. I have not thought much about art outside of religious art in quite a while – though we have witnessed a wasteland in the religious art field. Maybe it is because these artists no longer have any regard for soul, the ethereal senses of beauty or transcendence; usually an indication that their is an accompanying loss of faith. I think the same may be true in art in general, in that we have gone from the beautiful, to the rebellious, to the visual trickery, to the mundane, to the pragmatic, to the hideous and shocking, to an emptiness in art that bespeaks a soul-less creation: artforms that are computer generated such as fractals and such. I’m not so sure the art we have seen of late can really can be called art without widening the word to include anything produced by someone who claims to be in the field of art. It is like comparing a story in Modern Detective to Shakespeare as if they both are great examples of writers because they both use words.


    • Like Freedom says, I’ve seen some pretty good stuff out away from the cities, which is Ms Paglia’s milieu. There I see the same things as you, not art to celebrate but schlock designed to shock and sicken. I do think the ‘Art World’ has become a bubble of ultra-orthodox leftism including the elitist universities, museums, and such, and as always, freedom is the cure.


      • I agree, that there are pockets of artists who still live and breathe and produce good art: I have found this in religious art as well. Much can be blamed on those who call themselves “art critics” who are agenda driven. Does anyone think that ‘piss Christ’ is art really, except someone who is driving their leftist ideology? Science is now suffering the same malady of agenda driven truth as is news reporting which we all see. No longer is a scientist dis-interested in the outcome of the evidence that they discover; like the new media bias, they discount all the evidence that conflicts with their ‘new belief’ (which is sorf of like the new religion) and publish conclusions that considered to be good science. I’ve never seen anything like it. The same could be said of Psychology and their homosexual bias. It is pop-psycholgy at its best.


        • Right you are, and that is why I refer to it as a rigid ultra-orthodoxy because without dissent, there is no creativity, and it’s spreading into science is a harbinger of doom. The ‘piss Christ’ is art in no one’s estimation, it’s only function is to shock and get attention, I’m sure you notice that Paglia referred to it in almost those terms as well.


      • Indeed. I think you are right when you speak of ultra-orthodoxy; for it seems that there is a blind adherence to this new, unthinking and de-humanizing of the person that is so prevalent in popular culture. Great art and great writing has emerged in awful environments; where there was poverty, discrimination and oppression. But then the artist was the one who screamed out from their souls to express their human spirit and emotions; their longings or their loss of all hope. We see none of that today because we seem to be creating ultra-orthodox zombies that expect to get what they want simply by wishing it whilst they have no spirit that informs them that the loss of their very soul for an Obamaphone or government paycheck is important. Declaring oneself an artist is very different from an actual realization of it. Neo, when you get the time, read the whose story on Person and Personal that I have up. That too comes into play as we are made for love and not isolation which is what this modern construct has given us. I truly fear for the spiritual and mental toll this will take on our children and their children.


        • Indeed I will, SF. And yes it is a problem, I know it is for me. I spend to much time staring at a monitor and not enough out talking to flesh and blood people, part of it is that is how I do my job and blogging adds to that. Man is a social, even a pack animal, we need the interpersonal relations, it’s part of who we are, and we are getting very far from it, sometimes.

          Answers, I don’t necessarily have for this, and they are different for nearly every individual anyway. The example I tend to use is watching a ball game on TV or going to it: both are fun but they are completely different experiences.


      • Agreed. Something, maybe we didn’t even entertain about art is that the artists exist but the “art experts” are the problem. The left has dominated the artistic expression of the last century and thus the art experts of the same ilk. We may eventually see a movement of art and art experts who aren’t ultra-orthodox leftists and actually seek art for the humanizing elements such as beauty, emotions etc. Something to think about for sure.


        • I think there is a lot of truth in what you say here, SF. I think the art exists, it just doesn’t make it into the bubble that would share it widely, which was the key I took from Freedom’s comment about regional art fairs.


        • That may indeed be what Freedom was speaking of and I would agree with that entirely.


        • True, I am interpreting her comment here but, that fits with what I see as well.


        • It was a very good morning exercise to get our brain cells functioning for the day.


        • I know, when I ran across it last night, I fell in love with it, as I usually do with Paglia for that reason. Agree with her or not, she makes rational, yet unconventional arguments, that make you think. She’s been one of my favorites since she did a Playboy interview in the ’80s or ’90s, for that reason.


        • Well she does indeed bring up things that makes one think. I also found the synergy between what JPII was teaching about man’s nature part of this whole mix. I found myself thinking about how in our day we kids interacted with each other and now they interact with cell phones and video games. Then with cell phones people quit seeing each other but they did at least talk to one another in a sense. Now, the kids are even chucking talking with a deference for texting which further isolates us from one another. It all plays out in culture and art and everything else that touches us.


        • It does, and it is, or can be, very dehumanizing. Someplace, I saw a cartoon of a couple making love, at the same time, he was texting her, “is it good for you?” I fear there may be truth in that cartoon, and we are much the poorer for it.


      • I think you’re right that there is truth in that cartoon. It is quite funny and sad at the same time.


        • that was my reaction as well. First, you silly kids, and then Boy, I hope not.


  3. segmation says:

    How do you feel when you gaze at a large red Rothko painting, spend time in a room with regal red wallpaper, or see a stop sign? While the color red carries different meanings depending on its context, the body’s biological response is the same: red can raise both your pulse and your blood pressure. Additionally, red can even make you feel hungry by increasing your body’s metabolism – which is why many restaurants use the color red in their logos and decor!


    • Indeed so, in fact, if you look at Georgian and Victorian houses, the dining room was often predominantly red as well.


      • segmation says:

        I will have to pay attention to that next time I go to Georgian and Victorian houses!


        • I will be over for a visit soon, as well.


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