27 November 1999

Loving Rodney

The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience
by Celeste Olalquiaga

A glass case containing stuffed ermines enjoying a tea party; an expensive Turkish carpet with the face of Diana, Princess of Wales woven into it; the Hooked on Classics records of the 1970s; colourful porcelain figurines of ducks and small children. All these things are kitsch. But what do they have in common? Is there an essence of kitsch?

Celeste Olalquiaga’s extraordinary book promises to address such questions, locating the beginnings of kitsch in the mid-19th century, amid the Victorian crazes for decorative aquaria, reproduction mermaids, and artificial ruins in landscaped gardens. Kitsch objects are nearly always mass-produced, and so kitsch is painted as an inevitable consequence of the rise of industry and capital, representing a “sensibility of loss”: inchoate melancholia for a lost or mythical past.

Unfortunately Olalquiaga’s grasp of the history of ideas is inadequate to her project. Before the mid-19th century, for example, she claims humans enjoyed “an era where the perception of things was more direct”, and she is not just referring to the blurring effect of industrial smog. We are told that the 1800s saw the first appearance of a linear model of history, as opposed to the old tradition of cyclical time (that very change had already been dramatised centuries earlier, for example, in Mallory’s Arthurian tales); and, even more bizarrely, that industrialisation swept away “an organic model of evolution that lends credence to the belief in an ultimate connection between society and nature”, when of course it was evolution that was the novel and highly contentious idea of the time.

Olalquiaga is a fabulously abysmal writer, but the very eye-popping incompetence of her style is unwittingly instructive. It is a maudlin, impotently debased version of high academia. Words like “ontological” are paraded with no regard to their actual meaning; there are many redundant superlatives (“very graphic images”, “highly marked by death”); there is much sub-Lacanian guff about the “optical unconscious”. There is lots of jargonised nonsense: objects in glass cases are said to be thereby protected from “direct ocular contact”, as if Victorian men and women were in the habit of pressing their eyeballs onto things; the Crystal Palace was apparently “the first mass-produced building”, as if hundreds of them were constructed; and Olalquiaga expresses surprise that fossils were long considered to be “inanimate” objects, as though she has seen one move.

Perhaps she has: for even worse than any of this, even worse than her constant self-congratulation (she chirrups that “I have extended the phrenologist’s belief in ‘organs of marvellousness’ to the eyes”, to which the only sensible response is “Why did you bother?”), are the three interludes about her own kitsch experience: Rodney the hermit crab. He is dead, and lives in a glass sphere, but Olalquiaga somehow knows that “a vital spark radiates from the fossilised hermit’s eyes”; and that “Rodney cries silently” because for him “life is a concave dimension” and he “follows the rise and fall of feelings – those infinite nuances”.

Olalquiaga notices that, with photography and mass-produced objects, “imagistic representation” had changed. But the change is not, as she thinks, that it became more “accessible” – for over the previous millennium, anyone could walk into a church and see the paintings – but that it became possessible: it could easily be privately owned. This, I think, is one of the key components of the kitsch attitude. It involves two stages of self-congratulation: first, I congratulate myself on having fine feelings, and yet I have nowhere to put them; so, secondly, I congratulate myself on deciding to invest my fine feelings in an object which I know to be cheap and artistically worthless. Aesthetic value is no longer socially negotiated but is exclusively mine to confer. My individual sensibility is all-powerful. Kitsch is Thatcherite aesthetics.

And this is exactly Olalquiaga’s attitude to the crab ornament, in the cack-handed finale of her book: “In Rodney’s eyes I have been able to gaze into myself as never before, and in this awareness he has resuscitated to a new way of life, for since the moment we met, Rodney lives in me.” In this way, The Artificial Kingdom is not so much a discussion of kitsch as an example of it. If this is meant to be a joke, it is a very bad and expensive one.

Kitsch is melancholic, like this book, because it usually involves a high degree of thoroughly misplaced effort (like the exquisite but vacuous ornamentation on a porcelain duck), and also because it is perfectly useless. But Olalquiaga’s main theme, that kitsch crystallises a memory, is wrong, because unless you have had mushrooms for breakfast, you cannot remember what it is like to be a crab. On the contrary, the melancholy of kitsch arises from the destruction of memory: kitsch is deracinated, decontextualised and deliberately ripped from history.

This is exactly the artistic attitude of the Nazis as they came to power, and Olalquiaga’s book can only be so mimsily accepting of kitsch because she totally ignores this, its most demonic manifestation. The word “kitsch”, from the German verkitschen (to make cheap) or kitschen (to collect junk from the gutters) was used from its inception in direct opposition to Kultur – kitsch was the degraded antithesis of high art. And as art became one battleground for propaganda, the Nazis denounced “Jewish kitsch” and condemned Weimar expressionism as “degenerate”.

Yet what the Nazis encouraged in its place was itself profoundly kitsch. Naturalist paintings of Aryan women as water-nymphs and strong men tilling the fields attempted to create a new tradition from scratch, and were purposely designed, with their naive pictorialism, to bypass the critical faculties and evoke the sort of “feelings” that Olalquiaga treasures in her hermit crab. The Nazis’ appropriation of the ancient mystical symbol, the swastika, meanwhile, was also a kitsch gesture, disregarding the symbol’s traditional context and concentrating purely on visual impact.

How do we distinguish kitsch from the merely bad today? Objects which are kitsch may share certain family resemblances – excessive decoration, sentimental pictorialism, decontextualization, the melancholy of failed aspiration – but in the end, kitsch is fundamentally a moral attitude. The modern person who values something as kitsch is wallowing in defeat, giving up on the attempt to exercise artistic discrimination. At least you know where you are with crap. But this is nihilism, a slow rotting of the soul.

The burbling celebration of The Artificial Kingdom, then, is not just silly but dangerous. As I was preparing to write this review, I looked up the details of a famous denunciation, Saul Friedlander’s Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death. Scrolling down the Amazon web page, I came to the section where the site recommends other relevant purchases: “1950s or Early 60s Pastel Color Clock. Works Too. (Current bid: $24.95)”. In that awful bathos, the money-grubbing stupidity of a computerised system that equates a book on the death camps with a tawdry piece of junk, lurks the very essence of kitsch itself.