Camille Paglia

MS: What has been the public response to your assertion in Glittering Images that George Lucas is “the greatest artist of our time?”

There’s been a huge range of reaction—from fervent, grateful support from Star Wars fans to open derision and contempt from snobbish, close-minded reviewers who think it’s a rebuttal of my argument to sneeringly say, “Jar Jar Binks”! Queries about my claim have regularly come during the question and answer period after my talks on this book tour in the U.S. and Canada. This has given me a tremendous opportunity to describe Revenge of the Sith, which it is very clear that few of my opponents have ever seen. So onstage I narrate and dramatically re-enact the entire long finale of Sith, from the landing on Mustafar to the delivery of the infant twins to their adoptive parents. It’s worked extremely well! Because the audience then sees exactly what I mean—and they always react with applause and appreciative laughter to my passionate, evangelical delivery. During the tour, I have doubled down on my main point: I have been saying to interviewers and onstage, “The finale of Revenge of the Sith is the most ambitious, significant, and emotionally compelling work of art produced in the last 30 years in any genre—including literature!” Of course that sounds preposterous to most people—but they are totally unable to come up with any alternative to prove me wrong. Because in point of fact, the cultural scene in both arts and letters has become very boring and derivative.

MS: In the Introduction to Glittering Images you write: “Art is a marriage of the ideal and the real… Art uses and speaks to the senses.” These comments, along with many others throughout your essays on the book’s fine art collection, I feel are directly applicable to the artistry of George Lucas and Star Wars. Did you plan from the beginning to feature him as today’s important artist, or did his selection evolve as you wrote the historical perspective and addressed the changing definition of “art?”

Lucas was not part of my original plan for Glittering Images, which has 29 chapters crossing 3000 years. My goal was to write a very clear and concise handbook to the history of artistic styles from antiquity to the present. Despite how slim it is, the book still took five years to write—because I wanted it to be totally accessible and inviting to the general reader. When I looked around for strong examples of contemporary art to end the book with, however, I got very frustrated. There is a lot of good art being made, but I found it overall pretty underwhelming. Everything reminds me of ten other prior art works from the past century. I think it’s quite evident that creative energy is no longer flowing into the fine arts but into fields like industrial design and computer animation—genres where George Lucas has been a pioneer. I’ve always respected Lucas—for example, I was interviewed on camera for the 2007 documentary broadcast by the History Channel to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first Star Wars movie. But it was only while writing this book that I began to realize Lucas’ importance and stature as a visual artist. Channel-surfing to relax at night, I kept stumbling on the Star Wars films being broadcast back to back on Spike TV. Coming into the films midway like that (when one isn’t caught up in the story line) really made me notice and appreciate all kinds of artistic effects. When I would happen on the finale of Revenge of the Sith, I just sat there stunned. It grew and grew on me, and I became obsessed with it. I was amazed at how much is in there—themes of love and hate, politics, industry, technology, and apocalyptic nature, combined with the dance theater of that duel on the lava river and then the parallel, agonizing death/births. It’s absolutely tremendous! But at its release in 2005, Revenge of the Sith was not widely reviewed by serious movie critics, who were rather dismissive of it. So, despite how popular it is with children and the Lucas fan base, Sith has remained under the cultural radar. In the process of my research, I was appalled at how difficult it was to find books on Lucas at most university libraries, even those with film studies courses. It was the only case while writing this book where I actually had to buy all the books myself—searching them down in some cases via used-book services. It is truly shocking that a cultural figure of Lucas’ world-wide impact and influence has been marginalized by academic criticism. I think my book is going to wake people up to this inexcusable negligence. Combing through the books that I acquired, I found all kinds of obscure, scattered minutiae that I pulled out and wove into a seamless whole—my portrait of Lucas as always a visual artist, from his earliest years in Modesto. I am definitely the first critic to notice and comment on Lucas’ sensitivity to dance. And I am particularly proud of the point I make in Glittering Images about Lucasfilm’s gorgeously produced Incredible Cross-Sections books being our equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks with their speculative designs for then-impossible flying machines and submarines. Furthermore, I say that the fantastically complex model of the Mustafar landscape made for the production of Revenge of the Sith should be honored as an important work of contemporary installation art. And also that Lucas’ spectacular air battles, like the one over Coruscant that opens Sith, are sophisticated works of kinetic art in the tradition of important artists like Marcel Duchamp and Alexander Calder. No one has ever written about George Lucas in this way—integrating him with the entire fine arts tradition.

MS: You have said that with this project you wanted to create an accessible, instructive, and portable art book that would encourage art appreciation among youth and adults who have had limited exposure to visual art education. Are you satisfied that you accomplished that goal?

The response thus far to my book from general readers has been very positive and promising. My ultimate aim is to get art history into primary schools in the U.S. (And I am also targeting home-schooling moms.) An introduction to major artists and art works should be a basic part of education for American schoolchildren. What are called art courses are now just do-it-yourself projects with construction paper and glue pots. Most college students never take an art history course either. It’s really scandalous that American education has this huge deficiency. In Europe, in contrast, the fine arts are part of its own cultural heritage stretching back for thousands of years. The U.S. is still a young nation, and it remains very practical and business-oriented. Art has always struggled for recognition here. People who live in large cities with major museums don’t realize how weakly art impinges on the life of most American citizens. So this is why I’ve written Glittering Images—to give people a simple, coherent overview of the history of art, after which they can explore further on their own. The Web is a great resource for visual images now, but you have to know what to look for.

MS: We are still digesting the news that Disney has acquired the Lucasfilm company. Do you think that “artistic freedom” exists, and is it possible to maintain within such a massive entertainment conglomerate?

I know that many Star Wars fans were alarmed at this news of the Disney acquisition. But I take the view that Lucas is correct to devise a reliable system for future professional oversight of the Star Wars franchise and legacy. Who else could possibly be designated as his managerial heir? Despite its conglomerate sprawl, Disney is a respected name in the history of modern entertainment. After all, it was Walt Disney who began the great genre of feature-length animated films with Snow White in 1937. Disney as a visionary entrepreneur and media pioneer was definitely Lucas’ creative ancestor. It’s obvious that there is a worldwide thirst for more Star Wars movies, even if Lucas himself no longer wishes to make them. The Disney deal ensures that the tradition will continue, even if the first non-Lucas-made films might be uneven or unsatisfactory. I told a TV interviewer in Toronto several weeks ago that a parallel could be drawn with Homer’s epics about the Trojan War, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which date from around 750 B.C. For centuries afterward, Homer inspired hundreds of imitators churning out second- and third-rate poems about the Troy saga. It wasn’t until Vergil wrote the Aeneid shortly before the birth of Christ that there was another major epic about the Trojan War that reached the same level of brilliance as Homer’s originals. The same thing here—sure, there might be some bland or mediocre Star Wars films for a while, but then some day, a film-maker of genius will come along who is Lucas’ true artistic heir.  I suspect that only a corporate enterprise of Disney’s size and scale can ensure that the creative matrix for Star Wars will survive until that pivotal, redeeming moment.

MS: You may be pleased to know that on several occasions I gasped out loud as I turned a page in Glittering Images and saw works of stunning beauty that were revelations to me. I also learned a great deal from reading your essays that speak to art appreciation and history, as well as artists’ lives and personalities. In addition, I have uncharacteristically initiated conversations with non-artists about the book and the art you featured. Are these the kinds of visceral and active responses you hope Glittering Images will elicit?

I am truly delighted to hear about your instantaneous reaction! Actually, I too gasp whenever the book falls open to the Mondrian painting with its sensational big, broad patch of brilliant red. I am so grateful to the phenomenal production and design department of Knopf-Doubleday at Random House, who poured such energy and expertise into the layout and printing of this complex book. The cover design alone deserves to win a prize—that elegantly simple desert scene showing a pyramidal road (the spiritual journey) leading to a giant golden fading sun that everyone recognizes was inspired by the Death Star of Star Wars!

MS: Thank you for this beautiful and informative book. Through it, I believe that you will help to broaden public perspectives and raise awareness about infinite possibilities through art. Are you working on any new books or projects you can tell us about?

My next project is about Native American art and archaeology—focused on the Native American vision of the vast spiritual energies of nature.

MS: Once again, Ms Paglia, we very much appreciate the opportunity for this interview and wish you every success with Glittering Images.

Thank you very much for inviting me to address fellow Star Wars fans. May the Force be with you!