Is George Lucas the Greatest Artist of Our Time?

Is George Lucas the Greatest Artist of Our Time?

Most short lists of greatest living artists will have names such as David Hockney, Gerhard Richter, (’s own) Ai Weiwei, Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst, or Jeff Koons. But who would put filmmaker George Lucas at the top of that list? Critic and cultural agent provocateur Camille Paglia does in her latest book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. Part manifesto, part idiosyncratic beginner’s guide to art history, Glittering Images is, in Paglia’s words, “an attempt to reach a general audience for whom art is not a daily presence,” but for whom “[t]he only road to freedom is self-education in art.” In elevating Lucas to the top tier of artists, Paglia hopes to tap into “the force” that is popular culture and erase the culture boundaries that keep the elites in and the rest out.

“How to survive in this age of vertigo?” Paglia asks in her polemical introduction. Although “[t]he exhilarating expansion of instant global communication has liberated a host of individual voices,” Pagila argues, it also “paradoxically threaten[s] to overwhelm individuality itself.” To save individuality, we turn to the arts, but Paglia sees the arts turning away from us. She sees an art world establishment “suffer[ing] from a tragic complacency about the current status and prestige of art.” Since the end of Pop Art, no “galvanizing new style” rose to take its place. “Art makes news today only when a painting is stolen or auctioned at a record price,” Paglia laments, before setting off to reclaim the spirit of art stolen (or purchased) from the masses.

“American schoolchildren are paying the price for the art world’s delusional sense of entitlement,” Paglia accuses, perhaps blaming the victim, but at least making the larger point of a disconnect between the too-often rarified world of art museums and the everyday life of people. How do we reconnect art and people? Technology, Paglia answers. “The creative energy of our era is flowing away from the fine arts and into new technology,” Paglia believes, hence the overflowing praise for the cutting edge filmmaking technology of George Lucas, which reaches a climax in the visuals of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker’s duel on the volcano planet Mustafar in the 2005 film Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (shown above).

But before Paglia arrives on hellish Mustafar, she makes a five-millennia pilgrimage through art history starting with Queen Nefertari and the Goddess from Nefertari’s tomb in the Valley of the Queens, circa 13th century BCE. Following Paglia around as she picks and chooses objects as landmarks to trace the trajectory of art history itself is like being kidnapped by a brilliant rogue museum guide with access to every art museum on Earth. For every nod to conventional art history (Laocoön and His Sons or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon), Paglia makes an unconventional choice such as Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots or John Wesley Hardrick’s Xenia Goodloe. However, Paglia consistently makes interesting points about the works she selects. Considering a Cycladic figurine from 2800 BCE, Paglia asks, “What if an entire civilization disappeared and left only hidden hoards of stone dolls?” “So much pretty motion,” Paglia later says of the French Rococo, “and yet so much golden paralysis.” A discussion of Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice sails past Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Rene Magritte, and Hokusai’s The Great Wave before crashing into the Titanic. Writing in a personal, unapologetically opinionated style patterned on her admitted influences Walter Pater and John Ruskin, Paglia never fails to intrigue, infuriate, or both.

Where Paglia—the infamous culture war bomb-thrower—really launches her missiles is in talking about feminism in art. Ever since her 1990 breakthrough book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Paglia’s been a loud, unconventional voice in the American feminist dialogue. In Glittering Images, Paglia forgoes mainstream feminist favorite Frida Kahlo and “her folkloric themes, her militant Communism, her marital humiliations, and her ailments, accidents, and surgeries, which she graphically detailed in grisly paintings of symbolic martyrdom,” in favor of Tamara de Lempicka’s Art Deco cool. Similarly, Antin becomes the anti-Judy Chicago, with 100 Boots stomping out The Dinner Party’s “florid, vulval table settings” by merit of Antin’s avoidance of the “doctrinaire victimology” and “lugubrious excess often marring feminist productions” of Chicago’s heyday. Paglia picks a fight she may not win, but at least by picking a fight, she starts a conversation.

By the time you arrive on Lucas’ volcano planet, his ascension seems almost inevitable. “No one has closed the gap between art and technology more successfully than George Lucas,” Paglia announces unequivocally. “He is a man of machines yet a lover of nature, his wily persona of genial blandness masking one of the most powerful and tenacious minds in contemporary culture.” Again, Paglia picks a fight she may not win, but the ensuing debate’s worth the momentary battle.

Camille Paglia’s Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars may not convince you of George Lucas’ greatness, but it will at least get you thinking about the current state and uncertain future of the arts in American. “In the twenty-first century, we are looking for meaning, not subverting it,” Paglia writes. “The art world, mesmerized by the heroic annals of the old avant-garde, is living in the past.” Paglia calls for the art establishment to live in the present and be present in a meaningful way for today’s generation. Technology stands as the key to establishing a relevance in today’s vertiginous world. Although Paglia dizzies you with her erudition and unconventionality in making that case, it’s well worth considering how the art of the present—even in “lowbrow” popular film—might be the answer to saving both the “highbrow” culture of the past and the minds of the future.

[Image: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker duel on Mustafar in George Lucas’ film Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). Image source.]

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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The common cuttlefish

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
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