Take a long, close look at a masterpiece. As important as the details of subject and technique is the focused, attentive act of looking itself. This is part of the passionate and well reasoned defense of the visual arts offered by Camille Paglia, humanities professor at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, in Glittering Images (Pantheon, $30). Increasingly in danger of being lost amid the distracting digital clutter, the arts are also being cut from school curricula and have been demonized by the right, narrowed by the left. Paglia’s response is to revitalize art history with an eloquent tour of twenty-nine works, from ancient Egyptian tomb paintings to Renaissance sculptures to contemporary installations and films. Her brief essays describe periods and styles and how they’ve accomplished the diverse work art has done for some 5,000 years, which includes carrying on traditions, solidifying faith, celebrating historical events, and delighting by “the sorcery of beauty.” And art’s role now? Paglia declares the avant-garde agenda over; today, “we’re looking for meaning, not subverting it.”
And it’s why Picasso was “discovered” by the Steins. A wealthy family, they had the money to travel and buy art. Gertrude and Leo Stein began to collect almost as soon as they arrived in Paris in 1904; they bought their first Picasso in 1905. The Steins Collect (Yale Univ., $75), edited by a team of art historians, beautifully presents the works by Picasso, Matisse, and others that the Steins gathered in their legendary collections, and it also explores the relationships between the patrons and the artists. With text as substantial as the images, this catalog deepens knowledge and hence appreciation of all the work that went on in the early 20th-century art world, that of both the producers and the consumers.