Camille Paglia, “Even Tom found the penis funny!”

Camille Paglia. Recipient of ToFF’s 2004 Cultural Icon award.

Camille Paglia, the indispensable art critic and long-serving Professor of Humanities at the University of the Arts, has for over two decades lived in the shadow of Camille Paglia, the polemicist, enfant terrible, expert provocateur and, according the British writer Julie Burchill, “crazy old dyke.” Paglia is the lesbian who doesn’t like lesbians, the pro-drug libertarian who wouldn’t touch the stuff herself. And, through no fault of her own, the extravagances of Paglia’s proclamations have too often lead spectators to overlook the marrow of her ideas.




Paglia Thinks ‘Revenge of the Sith’ Is Our Generation’s Greatest Work of Art

VICE: So, Camille, how come contemporary art is so terrible?
Creative energy has migrated into industrial design and digital animation—videogames, for example, are booming!  Commercial architecture is also thriving, as shown by amazingly monumental new buildings everywhere from Dubai to Beijing. But the fine arts have become very insular and derivative. There is good work being done, but it too often reminds me of ten other sometimes better things over the past 100 years. The main problem is a high-concept mentality. There’s too much gimmickry and irony and not enough intuition and emotion.

Well, what about Revenge of the Sith? You say it’s the greatest work of art, in any medium, created in the last 30 years. It’s better than… uh, Matthew Barney or Rachel Whiteread or Chris Ware or Peter Doig? 
Yes, the long finale of Revenge of the Sith has more inherent artistic value, emotional power, and global impact than anything by the artists you name. It’s because the art world has flat-lined and become an echo chamber of received opinion and toxic over-praise. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes—people are too intimidated to admit what they secretly think or what they might think with their blinders off.

Sort of like, regarding Bronzino’s Neptune, what you call the art world’s “nagging doubt about the dignity of the penis.
It’s always been very difficult for artists to present the penis in a serious way. It lends itself all too easily to comedy!

But the penis has dignity!
Greek athletes or heroes were always shown with very small penises—it was a mark of intellectuality. Large penises by definition were ridiculous or animalistic—the exact opposite of modern standards. Modern gay male pornography has made the penis heroic by focusing on it as a totem of ritual display. But the problem with that is that there’s little room for any other aesthetic meanings in the image. I adore Tom of Finland, the Scandinavian illustrator whose drawings of stupendously phallic leathermen revolutionized the gay fantasy world. But even Tom found the penis funny!



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