I can vividly remember the first time I read Camille Paglia. I was visiting New York with my mom during college and we happened across “Vamps and Tramps” at a bookstore near our hotel. Lying in neighboring twin beds, I read passages out loud to her. Explosive things like, “Patriarchy, routinely blamed for everything, produced the birth control pill, which did more to free contemporary women than feminism itself.” I didn’t always agree with Paglia, but I enjoyed her as a challenging provocateur.
I still have that copy of the book. There are asterisks in the margins, double-underlined sentences and circled paragraphs. Reading it was a satisfying rebellion against the line-toeing women’s studies classes I was taking at the time — and at a college with an infamously anti-porn professor, no less. Since then, I have moments of genuine outrage and fury over Paglia’s writing and public commentary (see: this, this and this, for examples of why) — but she is still compelling and occasionally brilliant. The truth is that many people still want to hear what she has to say — about everything from BDSM to Lady Gaga.
The paperback release last week of her book “Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars” — which Salon interviewed her about last year, and which is an example of Paglia at her intellectual best and an antidote to her birther moments — is a great excuse to check back in with the so-called bete noire of feminism. I spoke with Paglia by email about contemporary feminism, Anthony Weiner and the “end of men.”
In “Glittering Images,” you argue that the avant-garde is dead. Are there any artists — be they painters or pop stars — who are making innovative work right now?
The avant-garde was a magnificent and revolutionary phase in the history of art, but it’s completely over. Artists and galleries must (in Ann Landers’ immortal words) wake up and smell the coffee! The avant-garde, whose roots were in late-18th-century Romanticism, was a reaction against a strong but suffocating classical tradition. The great modernist artists, from Picasso to James Joyce, were trained in that tradition, which gave audacity and power to their subversion of it.
But then modernism began to feed on itself, and it became weaker and weaker. As I argue in “Glittering Images,” there has been nothing genuinely avant-garde since Andy Warhol except for Robert Mapplethorpe’s luminous homoerotic images of the sadomasochistic underground. Everything that calls itself avant-garde today is just a tedious imitation of earlier and far superior modernist art. The art world has become an echo chamber of commercially inflated rhetoric, shallow ironies and monolithic political ideology.
In the past year, the only things that sparked my enthusiasm and gave me hope for an artistic revival were in pop music: Rihanna’s eerie “Pour It Up,” which uses a strip club as a hallucinatory metaphor for an identity crisis about sex and materialism, and the Savages’ slam-bang “City’s Full,” which channels the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith to attack (with gorgeously distorted, strafing guitars) the urban parade of faux-female fashion clones. The visual arts, in contrast, are being swamped by virtual reality.
Video games and YouTube.com are creatively booming, even though Web design, as demonstrated by the ugly clutter of most major news sites, is in the pits.
When Salon interviewed you last year, you were feeling inspired by Bravo’s “Real Housewives.” Are you a fan of any other TV series out there?
No, I can’t stand the bad lighting, tinny voices, snarky scripts and fake cool of today’s TV shows.
Bravo’s “Real Housewives” series isn’t just entertainment for devoted fans like me — it’s an entire all-absorbing universe of pride and passion. I can watch the same episode four or five times. The series descends from tear-jerker “women’s pictures” during the Lana Turner era, which inspired TV soap operas from the 1950s on. The formula overflowed into blockbuster prime-time soaps like “Dynasty” and “Knots Landing” in the 1980s. But then daytime soap writers started to get uppity and craved respectability in the industry. They veered away from the flamboyant trash and flash that had once endeared them to their audience, and soaps committed slow suicide by boredom. It was really stupid — because by the 1990s, the mainstream audience was flocking to movies about over-the-top drag queens like “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”
Andy Cohen, the executive producer of “Real Housewives,” was a longtime ardent fan of Susan Lucci (Erica Kane on ABC’s “All My Children”), and he has always understood the soul of soap opera as a female genre — its tender emotions, ruthless rivalries and theatrical sexual exhibitionism. Soaps are a major diva mode. But beyond that, Bravo’s ace technical team has refined “Real Housewives” into a feast for the eyes. I have such admiration for the amazing camerawork and deft narrative editing — the rapid scene-setting, the revelatory reaction shots, the touches of realism in how people get out of cars or shop or order a cocktail. Too much film and TV in our digitized era has lost a sense of space. But “Real Housewives” has the old Hollywood flair for knowing how to situate bold, dynamic personalities in tangible four dimensions — from chic or glitzy interiors to exhilarating landscapes. This is contemporary cinematography at its sparkling best.
If you were to provide an artistic critique or analysis of contemporary pornography, what would it be?
Well, on the one hand, I am of course delighted that the fanatical puritan feminists of the anti-pornography crusade of the 1980s have been forced to eat dirt! Their arrogant success in pushing Playboy and Penthouse out of the convenience stores (a campaign where they allied with conservative Christian groups) evaporated when the Web went big in the ‘90s. The feminist politburo toppled like a house of cards, thanks to the explosion of freedoms triggered by the Web. Pornography is now beyond anyone’s control. It’s a classic example of ever-controversial unregulated capitalism — the market automatically responding to individual needs and desires.
I continue to support and defend pornography, which I believe exposes the deepest, darkest truths about sexuality. As an industry, pornography also helps to rebalance the modern psyche: middle-class workers are trapped with their tyrannical machines at home and office. Pornography, with its surging animal energies and guiltless display of the body, brings the flame of organic nature into that mineral wasteland.
Having said that, I must confess that I find very little of interest in too-formulaic contemporary pornography — except for the always hot gay-male scenarios that one stumbles on in surfing the Web.
The problem is that explicit sex has become so diffused through the general culture that it’s lost its charge, which once came from the sizzle of transgression. I’m nostalgic for that primal shock quality, which was still there in spades when a juicily plump Madonna was doing her pioneering videos in the ‘80s like “Burnin’ Up,” “Open Your Heart” and “Like a Virgin.” No one could writhe better than Madonna on the prow of a gondola!
Two words: Anthony Weiner. Your thoughts?
Two words: pathetic dork. How sickeningly debased our politics have become that this jabbering cartoon weasel could be taken seriously for a second as a candidate for mayor of New York. But beyond that, I have been amazed by the almost total absence of psychological critique in news analyses of the silly Weiner saga. For heaven’s sake, Weiner is no randy stud with a sophisticated sex life that we need to respect. The compulsion to exhibit and boast about one’s penis is embarrassingly infantile — the obvious residue of some squalid family psychodrama in childhood that is now being replayed in public.
I assumed at first that Huma Abedin stayed married to Weiner out of noble concern for her unborn child, who deserved a father. But her subsequent behavior as Weiner’s defender and enabler has made me lose respect for her. The Weiners should be permanently bundled off to the luxe Elba of Oscar de la Renta’s villa in the Dominican Republic. I’m sure that Hillary (Huma’s capo) can arrange that.
Any hopes, fears or predictions for the presidential elections in 2016?
As a registered Democrat, I am praying for a credible presidential candidate to emerge from the younger tier of politicians in their late 40s. A governor with executive experience would be ideal. It’s time to put my baby-boom generation out to pasture! We’ve had our day and managed to muck up a hell of a lot. It remains baffling how anyone would think that Hillary Clinton (born the same year as me) is our party’s best chance. She has more sooty baggage than a 90-car freight train. And what exactly has she ever accomplished — beyond bullishly covering for her philandering husband? She’s certainly busy, busy and ever on the move — with the tunnel-vision workaholism of someone trying to blot out uncomfortable private thoughts.
I for one think it was a very big deal that our ambassador was murdered in Benghazi. In saying “I take responsibility” for it as secretary of state, Hillary should have resigned immediately. The weak response by the Obama administration to that tragedy has given a huge opening to Republicans in the next presidential election. The impression has been amply given that Benghazi was treated as a public relations matter to massage rather than as the major and outrageous attack on the U.S. that it was.
Throughout history, ambassadors have always been symbolic incarnations of the sovereignty of their nations and the dignity of their leaders. It’s even a key motif in “King Lear.” As far as I’m concerned, Hillary disqualified herself for the presidency in that fist-pounding moment at a congressional hearing when she said, “What difference does it make what we knew and when we knew it, Senator?” Democrats have got to shake off the Clinton albatross and find new blood. The escalating instability not just in Egypt but throughout the Mideast is very ominous. There is a clash of cultures brewing in the world that may take a century or more to resolve — and there is no guarantee that the secular West will win.
What do you make of contemporary feminism, especially as it’s manifested online?
Oh, feminism is still alive? Thanks for the tip! It sure is invisible, except for the random whine from some maleducated product of the elite schools who’s found a plush berth in glossy magazines. It’s hard to remember those bad old days when paleofeminist pashas ruled the roost. In the late ‘80s, the media would routinely turn to Gloria Steinem or the head of NOW for “the women’s view” on every issue — when of course it was just the Manhattan/D.C. insider’s take, with a Democratic activist spin. Their shameless partisanship eventually doomed those Stalinist feminists, who were trampled by the pro-sex feminist stampede of the early ‘90s (in which I am proud to have played a vocal role). That insurgency began in San Francisco in the mid-‘80s and went national throughout the following decade. They keep dusting Steinem off and trotting her out to pin awards on her, but she’s the walking dead. Her anointed heirs (like Susan Faludi) sure didn’t pan out, did they?
While it’s a big relief not to have feminist bullies sermonizing from every news show anymore, the leadership vacuum is alarming. It’s very distressing, for example, that the atrocities against women in India — the shocking series of gang rapes, which seem never to end — have not been aggressively condemned in a sustained way by feminist organizations in the U.S. I wanted to hear someone going crazy about it in the media and not letting up, day after day, week after week. The true mission of feminism today is not to carp about the woes of affluent Western career women but to turn the spotlight on life-and-death issues affecting women in the Third World, particularly in rural areas where they have little protection against exploitation and injustice.
What do you think about arguments that we are witnessing “the end of men” or a crisis in masculinity?
If this phenomenon exists, it primarily applies in my view to white upper-middle-class culture, a product of the service-sector economy that has gradually displaced manufacturing since World War II. Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men,” a best-seller last year, is the focus of a Munk Debate that I will be part of at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Nov. 15. The proposition is: “Be it resolved that men are obsolete.” Arguing for the motion will be Rosin and Maureen Dowd. Arguing against the motion will be me and Caitlin Moran. It should be a fascinating and substantive discussion. Lineups of opposing views like this have been rare indeed in feminism, which has preferred to ostracize and exile dissident voices.
Earlier this year, you wrote a highly critical article about recent academic books on the world of kink. What do you wish that these academics would say about BDSM?
My principal complaint about those three books, all from university presses, was that their intriguing firsthand documentation of the BDSM community was pointlessly shot through with turgid, pretentious theorizing, drawn from the slavishly idolized but hopelessly inaccurate and unreliable Michel Foucault.
In this tight job market, young scholars are in a terrible bind. They have to cater to and flatter the academic establishment if they hope to survive. Furthermore, they have not been taught basic skills in historical investigation, weighing of evidence, and argumentation. There has been a collapse in basic academic standards during the theory era that will take universities decades to recover from. I was incensed that none of those three authors had read a page of the Marquis de Sade, one of the most original and influential writers of the past three centuries. Sade had a major impact on Nietzsche, whom Foucault vainly tried to model himself on. Nor had the three authors read “The Story of O” or explored a host of other crucial landmarks in modern sadomasochism. No, it was Foucault, Foucault, Foucault — a con artist who will one day be a mere footnote in the bulging chronicle of academic follies.
You’re such a beloved and divisive figure, I had to solicit questions from folks on Twitter. Here’s a funny one: “Why do you come down so hard on skinny white girls? Your views on sexuality leave so much room for individuality, so why is it so bad if I am attracted to Meg Ryan or Gwyneth Paltrow?”
When have I ever criticized anyone’s fetish? I am a libertarian. Go right ahead — set up plastic figurines of 1950s-era moppets to bow down to in the privacy of your boudoir. No one will scold! Then whip down to the kitchen to heat up those foil-wrapped TV dinners. I still gaze back fondly at Swanson’s fried-chicken entree. The twinkly green peas! The moist apple fritter! Meg Ryan — the spitting image of all those perky counselors at my Girl Scout camp in the Adirondacks. Gwyneth Paltrow — a simpering sorority queen with field-hockey-stick legs. I will leave you to your retro pursuits while I dash off to moon over multiracial Brazilian divas.