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.”
The Steins were not the only ones with an eye for modern art. The photographer Alfred Stieglitz, after hearing Leo Stein lecture on Picasso, showed the artist’s work in America. In Stieglitz and His Artists (Yale Univ., $65), Lisa Mintz Messinger presents work by European and American artists whose talent Stieglitz was among the first on this side of the Atlantic to recognize; he showed them in his Gallery 291 and publicized them in his short-lived magazine, Camera Work. Messinger’s catalog pairs paintings with portraits of the artists, and accompanying text describes their relationships with Stieglitz.