The Bush look

By Camille Paglia

Published March 9, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Read the story.

The most recent Brooklyn Art Museum controversy reminds me of a visit to Vancouver, British Columbia, several years ago in which I visited government-run and non-government-run art galleries.

The government gallery had a selection of the usual put-on "art," of which the current Brooklyn example seems to be an extreme example. So much pretense. It is as if the authors of the work are daring the curators to refuse to purchase, or refuse to display, their "works." Of course, in such places, the curators, too, don't have an identifiable public to please to make a living. By contrast, visits to private galleries, with works for sale, were delightful.

I was immediately reminded that the best solution to such provocations is to remove the government as intermediary between the artist and the public. When people have to pay their own money, whether to view a work or to purchase it, they are much more careful with where and how they employ their resources. I am sure that in such circumstances, the curators would quickly get the message, and in turn artists hoping to have their works displayed or offered for sale would too. No muss, no fuss. And no censorship.

-- James Mead

I feel you misfired in your -- Was it a defense of religious sentiment? An attack on those who would assail it? -- column. I don't care for this type of art, but I think you possibly misread the artists' targets of attack. The church is not merely a religious institution but a political one as well; it is in its political mode that its corruption is most apparent and it makes itself a target for these attacks.

Case in point, one you cited yourself: Mayor Giuliani. A religious institution would denounce his public cavorting with a mistress; a political one would not. The church then uses the "wounded feelings" of its least intelligent and thinnest-skinned adherents as a shield, never responding to the criticism of the rot at its core.

-- Al Mascitti, Hockessin, Del.

A black reader would like to comment on Renée Cox by posing the rhetorical question: Is there something so inherently meaningful about "blackness" as a condition (or even a material) that it can elevate a photograph of a naked woman titled "Eve" above the level of sophomoric corniness?

And don't let's profess that this is the very question that the "art" poses. I mean, puh-lease -- a kneeling nude male with a designer globe on his back titled "Atlas"? It seems to me that the artist's first job is to be smarter than the rest of us -- otherwise, how can we possibly be challenged by their groundbreaking assaults on our cozy mainstream assumptions? These photos are just dumb.

If the textural conflict between classical references (Christ, Greece) and double-marginality (black, female) are supposed to supply the dynamic in Cox's work, shouldn't she have troubled herself to do enough reading to mine a fresher vein of "classicism," at least? Grabbing from the same dusty icon box as adolescent Midwestern sonnet writers and Victorian aesthetes just makes Cox seem lazy and undereducated.

Shocking a poorly read but vaguely pious American public with this tripe is just shooting fish in a barrel; how would her stuff stand up against the work of a clever careerist like Hirst or an educated piss-artist like Jeff Koons at Documenta, for instance? A German wouldn't even bother stroking his or her chin in front of one of these photos.

What's the next shocker from Cox ... a black Santa?

-- S. Augustine, San Diego

I have always been impressed with your intelligent views and opinions. But as somebody so intelligent, how can you claim to be an atheist believing only in great nature? I would think if you see great nature, you would see God. I believe great nature is a handprint of God and his creativity. And why is it that 99 percent of the time it's the highly intelligent people who have the most problem believing in a Supreme Being?

-- Wally Jackson, Long Beach, Calif.

Thank you so much for stating what I've long thought about the importance of studying military history. As a committed liberal and feminist in her 20s who just also happens to be a Department of Defense scientist, Naval War College student and occasional military book reviewer, I often feel like I get it from both ends.

It's an unfortunate fact that conservatives and Republicans dominate the defense industry. This allows them to shape policy at nearly every level. Having frequently been the only female or Democrat in a room has made me acutely aware of the ideological leanings of our military and defense departments.

However, instead of educating themselves about the military and becoming active participants in its operation, my liberal feminist peers would rather whine and sneer. Sorry, but the type of anti-male, anti-military rhetoric coming from the left only highlights their ignorance and destroys their credibility.

I can only hope that a few women take your advice.

-- Michelle Celich

Normally, I disagree with you. Violently. In a sort of shaking-my-head chuckling at the ridiculousness of it all sort of way. However, I completely wholeheartedly agree with your comments about "The Vagina Monologues."

I saw Eve Ensler do this show in San Francisco several months ago, and I'm looking around me, hearing all these well-dressed women whooping it up. Like an entire 51 percent of the population suddenly, after all these repressed years, has been given permission to say the word "vagina" out loud. And the whole time I'm thinking, "This has got to be one of the most hackneyed things I've ever witnessed." It was like watching some "Friends" version of feminism. I thought Rachel was going to run onstage any second and start saying the C-word over and over in a little singsong voice and then give her thoughts on the latest Banana Republic offerings for spring.

"The Vagina Monologues" sounded really old school, like 1960s old-school feminism. Not even. It's happy, sweet, soft, easy-to-digest, mass-marketed feminism. Also it bothers me that "The Vagina Monologues" has become a corporation unto itself. It seems somehow wrong that this should become a large money-making venture.

-- Kathy Mancall

I am the daughter of an Italian mother and was raised in South Philadelphia. Your comments about Antoinette Cannuli hit home. She could be my mother, my aunts or my grandmother. These women represented to me true feminism. They kicked ass! And so do you!

I remember my mother being confused by all the fuss about "women's lib." Her response was, "What's the big deal? We've always been in charge." The women in my family have always felt empowered and would have no sympathy for the "victim" mentality of modern feminism. You are absolutely correct when you suggest women spend time with someone like Antoinette instead of seeing "The Vagina Monologues."

-- Anna Vaughan

The thing I never understood is how Italian (and Italian-American) women got this reputation for being shrinking violets or sitting by limply while their husbands, fathers, etc., boss them around (or worse, beat them).

The toughest women I know are all these Italian-American women I grew up with, my family and the parents of my friends. I often say that Italian-American men fear only one thing -- Italian-American women!

I guess that is why I never really understood or bought the whole feminist thing in college or law school. My mother's reaction to these professors and students would be for them to get over it. I would love to see my mother placed in a room with a lot of these "empowered women" and see who walks out.

-- Anthony Calabrese, New York

Long ago, I grew sick and tired of the ridiculously paternalistic way Italian-American families were caricatured, both in the media and in the many academic studies (on the occasions we were considered worthy of study) I have read. Leave it to our Ivy-educated elite to ignore the many Antoinettes of this country.

My family immigrated from Irpinia, the remote, earthquake-devastated region east of Naples. My relatives were utterly impoverished and uneducated, but the women were as enterprising as the men were, and both mentally and emotionally stronger. They started and ran businesses, taught each other pagan-tinged rituals that they refused to teach to men and sang to each other peasant field songs that sounded as Bulgarian as Latinate. Most notably, to my adolescent self, these old women tolerated no nonsense; they were as sober and as formidable as any WASP dowager.

Nonetheless, I cannot think of ONE portrayal of a strong, balanced Italian American adult woman in the entire history of the big or small screens. Either they are passive nonentities like Carmella Corleone (she didn't garner a name until Part 2), monstrous Gorgons like Livia Soprano (never mind that the late Nancy Marchand was not and did not especially act like an Italian American) or co-opted and un-actualized like the latter's daughter-in-law, Carmela Soprano.

-- Anonymous

I read with great sadness the passing of Emily Vermeule. She was my favorite professor at Harvard. My first year, I was privileged to be part of a seminar she gave to 13 freshman on mystery novels. She specifically picked 13 because she thought that was an appropriate number for the discussion of mysteries.

It was the most marvelous class. She gleefully took us on a field trip to the Boston Police Department's crime lab, where we got to check out blood evidence and other techniques used in the lab. On a second field trip, she had us come to her house near Mount Auburn Cemetery. As each of us entered, she had us walk through her bathroom, which had entranceways on either side. In the bathtub was a "dead" body. We were then each handed pieces of paper that gave us our motive for killing the person.

In my sophomore year I took her class "The Art and Archeology of Greece." Her lectures were a joy. I recall once she had a slide of a Greek vase with runners racing around the base. She used her pointer and moved it to the erect penis of one of the runners and remarked, "He looks like he is happy." That remark, coming from someone dressed in her somber suit and bow tie, was so damn cute.

She used to go on and on about Bryn Mawr, saying that it was the only real school. God, I loved her.

Emily Vermeule had no equal. I had another female professor at Harvard, a bull dyke. A shadow compared to the mighty Ms. Vermeule. She represented the worst memories I had at that hallowed institution. Unlike Ms. Vermeule, she represents the new tacky order, shallow and self-absorbed.

-- Stefanie Krasner

As a clueless Wellesley freshman in 1966, I signed up for the art history survey course and soon found myself in a big lecture hall with 200 other rapt students watching Emily Vermeule, striding in front of huge slide projections of archaic Greek statues, wielding her 5-foot-long wooden pointer almost like a sword. Everything about her class was amazing. She exuded intellectual confidence and excitement but presented it utterly without arrogance or posturing. Somehow, she made ancient art and architecture seem like the most vital, modern thing in the world.

I doubt Mrs. Vermeule ever knew my name. But she opened my consciousness to the idea that women could have vigorous intellectual and professional lives.

-- Nancy Metcalf

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