The publication of Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson in 1990 announced the arrival of a new intellectual voice. That work — with its startlingly immodest ambition to “demonstrate the unity and continuity of western culture” — embodied what has come to be seen as Paglia’s hallmark style: deep erudition (the aesthetics of ancient Egypt, for example) expressed in hugely entertaining prose, peppered with apothegms and judgements that brook no dissension (“Unlike older scholars, some of us find King Lear boring and obvious, and we dread having to teach it to resentful students.'').
If a thread connects Paglia’s first book with her subsequent prolific output both in scholarly publications and contributions to newspapers and journals (notably as a columnist for the online Salon and contributing editor at Interview magazine), it is a commitment to the idea that Art is important. Although Paglia is as comfortable discussing the meaning of Madonna as she is explicating an Emily Dickenson poem, she doesn’t buy into the postmodernist credo that artistic judgment is hopelessly culturally and sociologically distorted and shouldn’t even be attempted. A caricature of this stance might be to say that appreciating bubble-gum wrappers deserves the same expenditure of brainpower as that accorded to Renaissance frescos. The Paglia line, however, seems to hold that although we can guiltlessly enjoy popular culture on its own terms, the canonical works still demand our unironic homage.