Camille Paglia’s Sex, Art and American Culture

Sex, Art and American CultureCamille Paglia defies simple categorization. She is a feminist whose career and popularity has been built on criticizing feminism and a classicist who reveres pop culture and its heroines, particularly Madonna. The blurb appended to my copy of Sex, Art and American Culture, a patchwork assembly of essays, book reviews, radio interviews and speeches, calls Paglia an “intellectual provocateur,” an epithet she is all too content to live up to, but an apt one nonetheless.

Paglia is a graduate of Binghamton University and Yale, where she was privileged to study under the poet Milton Kessler (Binghamton) and the literary critic Harold Bloom (Yale), giants of Western letters whom she aptly terms “visionary rabbis.” After languishing in obscurity – an uncomfortable state for a ‘provocateur’ –  for some time after graduation, she burst into the national spotlight with the publication of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990), which, no doubt aided by some inflammatory publicity and controversial interviews, quickly became a bestseller.

Sex, Art and American Culture is Paglia condensed. A sampling of chapter titles includes “Madonna: Animality and Artifice,” “The Joy of Presbyterian Sex” and “Rape and Modern Sex War.” Although these pieces are all very much tied to the intellectual and cultural debates of the 1990s, their continued relevance should be obvious to anyone attuned to contemporary issues in feminism, academia and public policy, particularly where sexual assault is concerned. This book is something of an aberration in my typical selections, but I was intrigued by her outspoken criticisms of academic feminism and the vacuity of modern humanities education.

At her best, she injects some much-needed dissent into educational policy discussions, which have for too long been mere echo chambers of the worst aspects of liberal thought: specious notions of “safe spaces” that place frighteningly totalitarian limitations on freedom of expression, a cult of self-esteem that prioritizes emotional well-being over intellectual advancement, and a watered down, pre-packaged form of “diversity” that emphasizes racial, sexual or gender diversity over the truest and most important form of diversity: differences of thought and opinion. Thus:

Specialization has made mincemeat of the great body of knowledge. G. Wilson Knight says, “It is easier to communicate with spirits than for one university department to communicate with another.” The humanities are dismembered and scattered, with music, art and literature residing far afield. Literature is chopped into national fiefdoms. English departments are split by recruitment “slots,” a triumph of the minim, producing such atrocities as ads for “Opening in nondramatic literature, 1660-1740.” What kind of scholar, what kind of teacher could satisfy this sad little mouse-view of culture?


What’s happening on campus is – I started feeling it twenty years ago, actually, the way the campus in America was drifting away from intellectual life, the way the campus was becoming a summer camp, the way the universities were beginning to focus their strategies  on getting parents to pay money to send their children there, so we’re going to give the kids “a nice experience.” So now, you see, the Student Services departments are taking over. This is leading to the speech codes and so on: “Oh, my God, we can’t have a child coming here, with someone paying for them to come here, and then for them to hear a nasty thing about them! We must squelch that.” The universities must be centered around the idea of intellectual discourse, intellectual enquiry. We cannot have any speech codes. This is absurd.

To this commodification of the university experience – look at the drastic rise in tuition costs over the last fifty years, adjusted for inflation and wage growth, for a clearer picture – we can also lay blame for grade inflation, a disgrace of modern education predicated on this same notion that anyone paying good money to enter a university should not have to suffer the indignity of receiving bad grades.

Unfortunately, her best moments – and there are many – are severely diluted by her worst moments, typically where her ego is not held in check. The trouble with being an “intellectual provocateur” rather than a thought-provoking intellectual is the necessity of maintaining that reputation with a never-ending string of edgy and outrageous statements, upsetting precedent at the expense of perspective. Nowhere is this handicap more visible than in her discussions of rape and date rape, then as now a sensitive issue in Western culture.

She begins by rightly excoriating the hyperbole, hysteria and blatant manipulation of statistics that have characterized – and continue to characterize – discussions about sexual assault and rape. But from the solid ground of logic and reasoned debate, she gradually descends to the hysterical and hyperbolical depths of the very people she is criticizing. Thus, after a lengthy discursive about the importance of personal responsibility, Paglia drops this bomb:

My kind of feminism stresses personal responsibility. I’ve never been raped, but I’ve been very vigilant – I’m constantly reading the signals. If I ever got into a dating situation where I was overpowered and raped, I would say, “Oh, well, I misread the signals.” But I don’t think I would ever press charges.

This is as nonsensical as it is repugnant, and robs her voice of a credibility it might otherwise deserve. In fairness to her, this particular quotation is taken from a radio interview, hedged by placating statements, but if it is not representative of her position on date rape, it is not far off either.

I wanted so much to enjoy this book. For all her faults and egotism, there are important criticisms of culture and policy contained within this text, but, it saddens me to say, they deserve a stronger, more focused voice than Paglia can give them. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, predating Paglia by four years, does a better job explaining the causes and consequences of the decline in humanities education, and Christina Hoff Sommers proves to be the more level-headed and acute critic of the excesses of academic feminism. If Paglia wishes to resurrect her career and make her voice relevant once more, she would do well to emulate their example.