Camille Paglia comments on forsaken American Paleolithic sculptural rock art

Cultural critic and provocateur Camille Paglia comments on forsaken American sculptural rock art. She is Professor at The University of the Arts, Philadelphia 

(19 May, 2016)

Letter to Camille Paglia, Salon magazine:

Dear Camille,

This was a minor point in your essay on “Free Speech and the Modern Campus,” but your comments on the National Museum of the American Indian really struck a chord with me, and I wanted to thank you, since I never saw any appropriately awful reviews.

I visited not long after it opened, in anticipation of seeing an organized, well-structured tour through the cultures, languages, and religions that we have lost (the Smithsonian does a good job in other places!). Obviously, there was nothing but happy talk about how man and nature used to live in harmony, not a word wasted on the linguistic diversity that was lost in North America since 1600, and absolutely no thematic organization across the museum. I had the distinct impression that the curators thought that putting together a coherent program would have been one final, intolerable act of cultural imperialism!

How could you take such amazing ingredients and produce something so tasteless? It was like going to a nice restaurant in anticipation of a wonderful steak dinner and being served a picture of parsley. What a waste!

Chris Dyer
Assistant Professor, School of Computer Science
Carnegie Mellon University

Paglia: I totally agree with you! As I said last month in the free speech lecture at Drexel University that you refer to, the beautifully designed National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. has been shockingly furnished like a tacky gift shop, devoid of scholarly substance and clarity of presentation. This is a major scandal that demonstrates the failure of parochial identity politics, which has so distorted American education and directly led to today’s plague of campus political correctness.

In the 1970s, when women’s studies, African-American studies, and Native American studies were hastily added to the curriculum by administrators under public relations pressure, those new programs were not coherently planned or structured in scholarly terms, so they became instantly vulnerable to highly politicized ideology that has limited their wider cultural impact over time.

The tragic emptiness of the National Museum of the American Indian (whose major draw seems to be its multi-ethnic cafeteria) is one result of the ghettoization of Native American studies, which should have been incorporated into the broader, well-established fields of world anthropology and archaeology.

For the past eight years, I have been pursuing my own independent research into Native American history and culture. My focus is on the religious vision of Native Americans in the Northeastern U.S. at the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago. (I spoke a little about this project during my conversation with Tyler Cowen last month at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.)

It was while I was writing my art book, Glittering Images (released in 2012), that I suddenly started noticing eroded modifications of the landscape in the Philadelphia area that were clearly the ancient legacy of Native Americans. I am particularly interested in stone sculpture, large and small, although I am also intrigued by the stone tools (awls, scrapers, choppers, and still razor-sharp knives) deftly shaped to fit the hand.

Once I began investigating (both in the library and in the field), I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what Native Americans have left here in plain sight. It is certainly my background as a lifelong student of world art that has enabled me to detect what so many others have missed.

I make constant discoveries in forests and farm fields, on river banks, at construction sites, and even at the edges of shopping malls, where bulldozers disturbed the soil. I consider this work probably the most important thing I have ever done—rescuing, identifying, and preserving the fragments of a vanished culture that was once everywhere around us.

Excerpt from transcript of Camille Paglia conversation with Tyler Cowan:

PAGLIA: Right now, I’m working on something that no one has any interest in, whatever. I’ve been working for eight years on this, my Native American explorations. I’m very interested in Native American culture at the end of the ice age as the glacier withdrew.

I go around and I find little tiny artifacts. I read. Absolutely no one, especially anyone in Manhattan, has the slightest interest in what I’m doing. Everything has been prepared for in my life. I’ve always been interested in archeology. I feel like I make a contribution, even though no one’s interested at all. What I’m trying to do is show how the politicization of ethnic studies, of racial studies, and so on has actually been very limiting.

I find very objectionable this eternal projection of genocide and disaster and so on onto Native American studies. I’d like to show the actual vision of Native American culture which is a religious vision, a metaphysical vision, and — .

COWEN: Cyclical approach?

PAGLIA: Cyclical?

COWEN: Relevance of nature.

PAGLIA: Yes, totally.

COWEN: Metaphysics epicenter.

PAGLIA: It’s almost like an early animism. That’s why I’m interested in Salvador de Bahia, also, because of the Yoruba cults of West Africa that were absorbed into Salvador de Bahia in Brazil. It’s the same, where all of the forces of nature are perceived as spirit entities that can bring you energy or vision.

COWEN: Of the Native America cultures which have come down to us, which is different, of course, from what you had at the Ice Age, which of those do you relate to the most and why?

PAGLIA: All I’m doing is exploring the Native American cultures of the northeast. Because when the settlers came from Europe, the Indians were pushed out, the hunting grounds were limited, then there was general destruction of Native American culture for many reasons during that period.

We know more actually about the Plains Indians and, obviously, Northwestern Indians, and the Navaho than we do about the Northeastern Indians. I believe that there are remnants everywhere — I stumbled on this. I’m very sorry I didn’t notice this when I was living all those years in Upstate New York, where the Onondagas still have their reservation. Probably the remnants of these glacial era cultures were still there as well.

But I find it’s absolutely staggering. It is staggering the actual signs and remnants that are everywhere in the Northeast. I could go out right now, find some dirt, and I’ll find you a broken tool. It’s absolutely incredible. I feel that’s what I should be doing something like this, which no one is interested in. But I feel it’s substantive, and I hope can help to show what was here before.

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