The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience

Celeste Olalquiaga, Author Pantheon Books $30 (336p) ISBN 978-0-679-43393-4
Positioning herself as a glamorous, cutting-edge scholar a la Camille Paglia or Marjorie Garber, Olalquiaga (Megalopolis) presents a sweeping but disjointed history of kitsch from the age of enlightenment to the turn of the 21st century. Her premise, loosely developed from Walter Benjamin's famous essay ""The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,"" is that industrial mass reproduction ended the uniqueness (or ""aura"") of objects, particularly works of high art. Mass-produced objects, Olalquiaga argues, can become imbued with something resembling the old aura of art works, but only to a lesser degree, thus becoming collectibles--or kitsch. In typically dense phrasing, Olalquiaga explains the process of becoming ""kitsch"" as the result of a given object's ""paradoxical resistance to and glorification of a wholesale notion of authenticity."" This may seem a high-flown vocabulary for describing ""Rodney, king of the hermit crabs,"" an actual hermit crab encased in a glass-globe paperweight, with which Olalquiaga begins her study. Still, working through a series of sometimes linked, sometimes independent essays, she investigates an array of fascinating subjects: the arcades of 19th-century Paris, London's Crystal Palace, the Victorian aquarium craze, mermaids, the Lost City of Atlantis, Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Her extended riffs on the history of various kitsch objects are the book's most engaging aspect. Unfortunately, they sometimes seem to leave her breathless, as she gets caught up inflating her own discoveries. For instance, she credits the Parisian arcades with having originated both window-shopping and urban strolling, although both were celebrated diversions of 18th-century London. In the end, this occasionally enthralling book is too trendy for its own good, its hipster posturing, theoretical banter and self-consciously nonlinear design a poor substitute for the real thrills of intellectual discovery. Photos. (Dec.)
Reviewed on: 11/30/1998
Release date: 12/01/1998
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Paperback - 336 pages - 978-0-8166-4117-8
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