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Voluble radical gives old and new Puritans a tongue-lashing

Camille Paglia talks to Matthew Reisz about the US academy's prejudices and what the secular and the religious fail to understand about art

"I am a fast-talking Joan Rivers type," says Camille Paglia, university professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. "Nobody took me seriously in graduate school because of the assumption that deep people are slow. I always resented that. Why does a deep thinker have to be a slow talker?"

Paglia shot to fame in 1990 with her vast and controversial survey of Western civilisation, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, and she has continued to produce a stream of provocative commentary about everyone from Hillary Clinton to Lady Gaga, from Oscar Wilde to Woody Allen, ever since.

But Paglia says her stress on deep-rooted gender differences has led to her being marginalised within academic debate.

"You'll only find a few dissidents who assign my works," she says, speaking to Times Higher Education while in London to deliver a lecture on film director Sir Alfred Hitchcock.

"When anyone takes a gender studies course at college these days, only one in a thousand mentions that hormones exist, which is ridiculous."

Yet at the same time, Paglia points out, "transsexualism" is the current fashion, with the media regularly featuring transgender celebrities such as Chaz (formerly Chastity) Bono "who are popping their pills and shooting themselves up with male hormone every day".

Talk of her latest book, Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars (to be published in October), leads Paglia to express further gripes about where the US academy has gone astray.

Speaking as an "enthusiast" and a "New Age intellectual", she says, her "argument is that Christian conservatives can't understand sex in art, but our young secular intellectuals can't understand religion, so they are also blocked out from a great deal of art".

She says this is "not helped" by the most academically talented students being sent to elite universities, "where they are drenched in the snide and snarky style of poststructuralism and so on".

Paglia adds: "The very thing you need as a classroom teacher to communicate to tired, surly and worn-out students - enthusiasm - is being systematically taken out."

She says that when she walks into the office of an Ivy League university, she has to lower the volume and speed of her speech as it is not conducive to the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant style that has become the norm.

"I'm a product of an immigrant Italian family and when I was in college knew all the radical Jews from New York with their immigrant grandmothers who'd survived the Holocaust," she says.

"[But] America reduces all immigrant styles to this very laid-back Wasp thing. That's the dominant corporate style and it's become the academic style - and it's fatal to talking about art."

Crazy guys, great artists

She is equally controversial when talking about the subject of her lecture, part of the British Film Institute's The Genius of Hitchcock season.

Although acknowledging that Hitchcock was "a very emotionally mutilated man" guilty of "horrifying" sexual harassment, Paglia claims that this was unsurprising.

"You can get a great artist or a great criminal out of things going wrong with the male brain. I have yet to find an example of a major male artist who didn't have some complicated anxiety and push-pull relationship with women."

Being a film director simply allowed Hitchcock to act out his sadistic fantasies in ways denied to painters and poets, she adds.

Paglia goes on to criticise feminist critics who have "waded into film studies with a theory that 'the male gaze' is intended to objectify and degrade women".

She adds: "The same argument was used about strip clubs. Whenever they are shown in movies, you have this ridiculous politically correct thing of the poor women on stage and the men laughing derisively.

"[But] I went to three different strip clubs for Penthouse in 1994, and what I saw was the women on stage ruling the room and the men desperate for their attention, begging them to take their money."

She says the absurdity of the theory of the "male gaze" is demonstrated by gay men going to strip clubs: "Would any middle-aged gay man say: 'I'm controlling him with my money, I'm looking down on him, I'm superior to that beautiful young boy'? Not for one minute! You could be a millionaire and the head of a corporation, but you know the beautiful young person on stage is vastly superior to you."

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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