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Pop Goes Paglia: More Noise, Ideas

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SEX, ART, AND AMERICAN CULTURE By Camille Paglia, Vintage, 337 pp., $13 paper.

A LOT of Camille Paglia goes a short way. By the vicissitudes of seating arrangements, if you should sit next to her on a flight to Paris, the first 40 minutes of Dionysian discussion about sex, art, and American culture would be intriguing.

Shortly after that you might hanker for escape, or perhaps opt for a vote by those nearby to mandate 20-minute breaks to sift Paglia wheat from Paglia chaff. Anyone who puts actor Marlon Brando in the same league as Byron, Keats, Caravaggio, and Michelangelo for "spiritual conflicts and thwarted ambitions" needs ample quality time to explain.

Explain she does. Paglia is the academically rooted author of "Sexual Personae," a supercharged, eclectic book that took a very small part of the world by storm in 1991 because of its wily mix of pop, sop, and rock. Her premise: "the high development of personality in the West has produced a perverse sexual problematics unique in world culture." .

Her new book, "Sex, Art, and American Culture," is a collection of 21 writings, some mere fragments or short interviews, some essays, but all previously published, and all try to add more to the above premise.

Because she has received, and encourages, notoriety, the inclination is to want to see what all the fuss is about, which, of course, is the reason for the book.

But Paglia's irritating style of splicing puffed-up cultural pronouncements to sometimes-lucid arguments about current issues weakens the desire to try to stay with her.

For instance, in a rambling essay exploring the intellectual origins of "Sexual Personae," she declares suddenly, "Art is ceremony, and so is criticism. Appreciation, a commemorative magniloquence, is inflated psychoeconomic value." Throughout the book her proclamations are as common as sound bites on the evening news.


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