The devil is in the details

Bad taste has won. Irony rules. A plastic hermit-crab called Rodney inspires an erudite study of kitsch. Bring back Le Corbusier!
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The Independent Culture

The Artificial Kingdom by Celeste Olalquiaga (Bloomsbury, £20, 321pp)

The Artificial Kingdom by Celeste Olalquiaga (Bloomsbury, £20, 321pp)

Kitsch, like Schadenfreude, is a rare - perhaps unique - example of a German word better untranslated. It means the celebration of junk. There are two sorts of kitsch, innocent and experienced. Innocent kitsch is uneducated taste in the fine and decorative arts: glass ornaments, bad reproductions of gallery art, lava lamps, flying ducks. Experienced kitsch admires the very same objects, although viewed through the contemptuous eyes of the cocksure, the self-important and the smart. Kitsch is bad art: the innocent don't know any better, the experienced, intoxicated by a lethal brew of existential doubt, multicultural relativism, postmodern irony and, recently, millenarian anxiety, think they are being clever.

The argument for kitsch goes like this (I know it sounds like a manifesto from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, but there you are). We live in a world of unmediated crap. It's all a valueless miasma. Jeff Koons is as "good" as Donatello and Oasis are the equal of The Beatles and superior to Schubert. Why? Because the numbers tell us so.

Quality is elitist. Popularity is what counts. Everything else is a bourgeois, formalist delusion. Tracey Emin is "better" than Albrecht Dürer because she's on the telly. Jeffrey Archer is more important than Proust because more people read (all about) him. Maybe, but I don't think so.

Like the sewers it so closely resembles, kitsch is a by-product of the industrial revolution. Before the age when we had factories capable of manufacturing a tin box got up to look like the west front of Lincoln Cathedral, before there was an urban class of consumers, there had been a single standard of taste. It was, of course, defined by the aristocracy and, naturally, consumed by them, but at least it had the advantage of being unambiguous. An academic artist - Sir Joshua Reynolds, for instance - could cheerfully say that there is a single standard of taste and that any reasonable man can acquire it. Massproduction and the mass-consumption that followed blew these rigid moral certainties into the flying duckweed, and the result was Chris Smith.

The now despised Modern Movement, all those Bauhaus rectangles and angle-iron furniture and puritanical expurgation of ornament, was in fact a call to order: a nostalgic grope at the antique classicism relegated to archaeology by industrialisation. Mies van der Rohe, to offer just the most obvious example, was in a direct line of intellectual and artistic descent from the great neo-classicist Karl-Friedrich Schinkel.

But while Schinkel magnificently represented the culture of antiquity and classicism, Mies (and Gropius and all the rest) ended up in the service of monopoly capitalism: for Seagram, Lever, PanAm and so on.

Inevitably, this imposition of purity on the behalf of a new industrial ruling class brought a reaction. In a famous essay of 1939, "Kitsch and the Avant-garde", the art critic Clement Greenberg explained that "Where there is an avant-garde, generally we also find a rearguard." The disciples of kitsch were, to continue the military metaphor, these soldiers of misfortune. In the face of a new classicism, which emphasised purity and order, they advocated banality and vulgarity.

Kitsch was defined in categoric opposition to the scripture of Modernism. Instead of truth to materials, kitsch proposed fakes. While Modernists wanted to replace cynical ornament with fine effects and divine proportion, kitsch championed inappropriate surface decoration. Instead of functionality, kitsch wanted uselessness. Instead of authenticity, you were offered repro. In place of morality, kitsch adumbrated dishonesty. Instead of form and content being one, kitsch insisted here on a master-slave relationship.

Modernism promised refinement and sophistication and (at least) an illusion of progress. Kitsch wallowed in a mire of historicist camp.

Here we find a "treasury of kitsch experience" by Celeste Olalquiaga, a native Chilean and a product of the US PhD system - which is to say she has a lot of learning, carried somewhat effortfully. There are boggling footnotes ("On the role of the anecdote in wonder, see... "), although she does not appear to know Fritz Karpfens's original Der Kitsch of 1925 nor Gustav Pazaurek's Stuttgart gallery. It was collecting chocolate busts of the Kaiser at the turn of the century, assembled as an admonitory corrective for errant designers.

Her content is allusive and her style highly wrought. There is a malodorous atmosphere of privileged decadence. You have to imagine reading fortune-cookie legends written by a Columbia PhD while inhaling the vapours of crushed violets in a dusty Lisson Grove "antique" shop. I'm inclined to say "yuk", but kitsch has served some good purposes.

It was the intellectual patriarch of the Milanese ricostruzione, an aesthetician called Gillo Dorfles, who published the most sensible book on the subject in 1968. His fascinating anthology gave rise to the Milanese anti-design movement of the Seventies, whose preoccupation with sly banality led in turn to the Memphis claque of the Eighties with their playroom style and their cheerful revolutionary airs.

But who are these kitsch people? Well, there is no such movement. At least, not any more. It is just clever-dick academics. There are people who find kitsch funny. People like Dr Olalquiaga whose plasticised hermit crab ornament (for there can be no other term) is the only begetter and presiding spirit of this book. A mite too cutely, he is called Rodney. Then there are people like me who think it is sad.

Kitsch is knowing and sly. It is patronising and condescending. As Eric Hobsbawm knew, "The less sophisticated the mass public, the greater the appeal of decoration." Kitsch is wicked because it makes fun of the less sophisticated, the credulous and the uneducated.

Modern design, on the other hand, aims to educate and dignify them. Maybe I got the tense wrong there. Le Corbusier did not know what "slumming" meant. Readers of The Artificial Kingdom will soon find out.

Stephen Bayley's book 'Labour Camp' is published by Batsford