Books: Fancy a schooner of Harvey's Bristol Cream?

Matthew Sweet explains how a love of kitsch masks snobbery and elitism
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The Independent Culture
The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience by Celeste Olalquiaga Bloomsbury pounds 20

The Artificial Kingdom is part cultural history, part autobiography. It's an attempt to theorise the nature of kitsch. But it's also the story of a whoop-de-doo Manhattan scholar and her relationship with a hermit crab paperweight called Rodney.

In her acknowledgements, Celeste Olalquiaga says that one of her mates told her that her writing was like "a garden of exotic flowers". Well, in the sense that it's full of shit, perhaps. This, for example, is one of many peculiar attempts to capture the pleasure she takes in her dead crustacean friend: "Oh, how the closing windows of claustrophobia must rapidly open to another passage of air - that instinctive dissociation that constitutes a flight from some uncontrollable danger, leading us into the safety of a neighbouring dimension. Here, we can stand alongside ourselves without fully giving in to the siege, gently attempting to break away from the malefic spell that numbs us until we succeed in mechanically leaving the cookie house of death."

You could forgive her for simply being attuned to the loopy, exaggerated nature of some of the objects she describes, if it were not for the inadequacy of her argument. Olalquiaga's contention is that kitsch (literally, "junk from the street") comes in two flavours: "nostalgic" and "melancholy". The former is an emblem of some personal experience (a shell-sculpture bought on holiday in Scarborough; a wedding album; a sombrero from Fuengirola). The latter is a decayed fragment of the past (an ammonite; a taxidermal tableau pitting snakes against mongooses; those Connemara signposts that clutter the Irish pubs of the world). This thesis fits neatly enough in the cases upon which she chooses to concentrate but it doesn't explain why my brother-in-law is so fond of the minaret alarm clock that wakes him every morning with a synthesised call to prayer.

Unless he's plugging into some unconscious memory of how, as a baby, he was smuggled out of Istanbul in a crate of Turkish delight, his feelings are not inspired by any personal memory. The muscular condition of modern Islam prevents this object from representing a fragment of lost time. And yet, the battery-powered muezzin is incontrovertibly kitsch, because its appeal lies in its flagrant contravention of western European ideas of good taste. The pleasure which this tacky novelty gives to its admirers exists in an inverse relation to the dismay with which would have filled Kenneth Clark or Frank and Queenie Leavis. It's two fingers up to Civilization, the Great Tradition, to everything Western culture considers to be exquisite, sophisticated and canonical.

So, a delight in kitsch can rarely be an innocent pleasure, because it is a kind of snobbery. It requires a gulf of understanding to exist between a broad set of mass consumers and a coterie of educated kitsch-fanciers. For you to take pleasure in owning a shire horse sherry-bottle holder as a kitsch object, thousands of other people must have them on their sideboards and feel only an irony-free delight when they pour a schooner of Harvey's Bristol Cream for their house guests.

A love of kitsch, therefore, is essentially a pretentious pleasure. My partner's auntie, for instance, once knitted us a loo-roll holder in the shape of a doll in a powder-blue gown. In her household, it was considered a thing of beauty and charm. In our household, balanced on top of the cistern, this dolly became the heroine of Dion Boucicault's play, The Colleen Bawn (1860), who narrowly avoids a watery grave - a fate which our colleen's slippery porcelain perch regularly threatened. And I'm not telling you this because I'm particularly proud of it.

Although Olalquiaga's book is a sweet inventory of bizarre Victoriana - my favourite was a group of stuffed ermines having a gay old time in a saloon bar - she doesn't square up to the complexity of her subject. The Artificial Kingdom doesn't address, for instance, the ennobling process that time performs upon a tacky and vulgar aesthetic; how, for instance, opulent 1930s cinema interiors and the stained-glass windows of Edwardian suburbia have sidled away from the naff and the vulgar into categories of status and value. And characterising kitsch objects as little loci of melancholy does not explain how interiors magazines like Wallpaper have elevated them to a form of high style, why the Pooters now look rather cool, or why Barratt estates are now full of shiny new reproductions of the Victorians' second-hand medieval fantasies.

Instead, Olalquiaga collects an album of magnificently strange images (underwater grottoes, death masks, snowstorms), a brace of critical theorists (Walter Benjamin, Ruskin, Susan Buck-Morss) and a phalanx of important kitsch enthusiasts (Captain Nemo, Queen Victoria, Colette) and nails them into position in a tableau that's rather like one of the objects she describes: engaging and attractive in its own way, but, if you're honest, rather pointless and more than a little bonkers.

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