The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience 
by Celeste Olalquiaga.
Bloomsbury, 321 pp., £20, November 1999, 0 7475 4535 9
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The hero of Celeste Olalquiaga’s book is a hermit crab encased in a glass globe which she has chosen to christen ‘Rodney’. She first encountered Rodney, as she recounts, in a San Francisco bed and breakfast, a Victorian mansion in which every room had been named after a supposed turn-of-the-century guest – Isadora Duncan, Enrico Caruso, Luisa Tetrazzini – and decorated in an appropriate style. She climbed laboriously up to a small ‘chamber’ – it was the Jack London room – in one of the mansion’s towers where, among a plethora of nautical bric-à-brac, she found, on the bedside table, her crustacean muse. Rodney, of course, was long dead inside the mollusc shell that served as his hermitage, but encased in his glass sphere by the Iminac Company of Lake Jackson, Texas, he’d been preserved against decay. In effect, he had become – simultaneously – mummy, exhibit and bibelot, a quintessentially kitsch object which entranced its discoverer, fond admirer and future theorist. Rodney provoked in her reveries of an underwater world full of sunken treasure and forgotten shipwrecks. ‘Unwilling to let go of the reverie,’ she writes, ‘I press my face against the transparent bubble that holds him, hoping this gesture will bring him a little closer for a few more seconds. But I have returned from my musing and the spell is broken.’

Rodney, Olalquiaga insists, is kitsch, and her book, as it develops, is a historical enquiry into the intertwining stories of the glass-encased bibelot, the cabinet of curiosities, the cluttered drawing-room, the fake mermaid, the subaqueous realm of Captain Nemo and other such dreamscapes and, at the same time, a theoretical enquiry into the nature of kitsch and a defence of it – or certain aspects of it – against the opprobrium under which it usually falls. Drawing on Walter Benjamin, her mentor in such matters, she sketches out a distinction between two contrasting types of kitsch – the nostalgic, which is bad, and the melancholic, which is good. The nostalgic is characterised by a fantasy of keeping the past alive in our imagination, while the melancholic recognises the loss that has occurred and mourns it, with no pretence that there can be any restitution, imaginary or otherwise. Olalquiaga mourns Rodney as he is, irrevocably dead, rather than allowing herself to be carried away by his image into the vision of a utopian past, a golden age when Rodney was still happily at home on the ocean floor. The experience of melancholic kitsch, she argues, is that of an intense and timeless loss that emerges within the realm of unconscious memory, irretrievably distanced from us, while nostalgic kitsch depends on our sense of a continuous time, of a lost moment which can be reconstructed and restored as a fantasy of what might have been.

When she writes that ‘Rodney is kitsch’ – melancholic kitsch – Olalquiaga attributes the fascination she feels to the fact that he is present to her gaze as if in a time capsule which has unexpectedly brought him before her from an unknown, strangely other dimension of time, speaking, ‘for those who want to listen, about the hopelessness of attempting to detain life, the vanity of hanging onto what is gone, the beauty of the marks of time’. There is no sense of loss, of regret, of a past world to which Rodney truly belongs and which we can recover: only an image, abstracted from our own sense of time past and suspended now in the present, like a dream image whose connection to us has been irrecuperably lost. The infrastructure for this theory of kitsch is provided by Olalquiaga’s reading of Benjamin who, while he never wrote about kitsch as such, distinguished between melancholic and nostalgic memory – in his writing on Baudelaire and Proust. Benjamin was also fascinated by bibelots and bric-à-brac, the commodified clutter of the arcade, the department store and the Victorian interior which provided such a fertile environment for the growth and, some might say, final triumph of kitsch.

Benjamin provides Olalquiaga not only with a typology that she can apply to kitsch but with a model of passionate involvement with the lost and dusty detritus of culture which characterises the realm of kitsch. She finds in Benjamin an ally, seeing him as that rare creature, the Modernist attracted to kitsch, whose writings she can use to construct a defence against Hermann Broch, Gillo Dorfles and Clement Greenberg, who abhorred it as the enemy of true modernity. The distinction she makes, extrapolating from Benjamin, between nostalgic and melancholic kitsch, enables her to defend at least the melancholic segment of what elsewhere she has called ‘the dark side of modernity’s moon’. At the same time, she is well aware that this entails defending commodity culture itself, given that it is not the absence or presence of commodification which distinguishes good from bad in kitsch, but the nature of the object commodified. Citing Benjamin again, she argues that commodities are ‘dream images’ or ‘wish images’, representing utopian desires. Going further, she argues that commodities as fetishes (memories turned into souvenirs) can acquire a life of their own, as Rodney has, becoming ‘an endearing creature whom my friends even say hello to when they visit’.

The problem is that Olalquiaga writes as if Rodney’s charm and her attachment to him could, in themselves, override volumes of closely argued condemnation of kitsch; as if Rodney can be exempted on the basis of a few telling citations from Benjamin. She is right, I think, to see kitsch as the other, hidden face of modernity and to wonder why modern art should be praised while Rodney is condemned, but the arguments against kitsch are not trivial. In his thoughtful book Kitsch and Art, published in 1996, Tomas Kulka proposed three defining conditions of kitsch:

Condition 1. Kitsch depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with stock emotions.

Condition 2. The objects or themes depicted by kitsch are instantly and effortlessly identifiable.

Condition 3. Kitsch does not substantially enrich our associations relating to the depicted objects or themes.

Given these conditions, Kulka argued, kitsch must inevitably be seen as spoon-feeding its subjects with stereotypes, confirming viewers in attitudes and sentiments which are already deeply engrained, playing to the kind of predictable response aroused by pictures of ‘puppies and kittens of various sorts, children in tears, mothers with babies, long-legged women with sensuous lips and alluring eyes, beaches with palms and colourful sunsets, pastoral Swiss villages framed in a mountain panorama, cheerful beggars, sad clowns, sad faithful old dogs’. Olalquiaga might argue that hermit crabs fall into a completely different category, but I am not sure that this is entirely persuasive, nor do I know how certain we can be that the emotional triggers of melancholy and nostalgia are as distinct from each other as she claims. Is a hermit crab immured in a glass globe as a ‘Nature Gem’ really all that different from an ‘Atlantis’ reconstructed on a Bahamian beach or the fake ruins of Hubert Robert, both of which she gives as examples of kitsch, just because one is real, the others fake, one melancholic, the others nostalgic? Both categories of object seem to me to trade on the viewer’s engrained sentiments and predictable responses.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that kitsch, whether nostalgic or melancholic, should be denounced by those who argue for novelty, difficulty and complexity: that is to say, by Modernists such as Greenberg, the New York critic who formulated and led the assault on kitsch in the 1940s and 1950s – an anti-kitsch campaign which, as he saw it, was necessary if the meaning and value of artistic Modernism was to be recognised in America and, subsequently, the value of the new American avant-garde recognised worldwide. This was especially important because America was understandably considered the homeland of kitsch. Greenberg published his classic text, ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, in 1939, in Partisan Review, reprinting a version of it the following year in Horizon, and then authorising its reprinting in a series of influential collections: APartisan ReviewReader (1944), Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America (1957), Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste (1969), Pollock and After: The Critical Debate (1985), as well as Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism (1986). In effect, Greenberg’s onslaught has dominated the field of kitsch studies, so to speak, for the past sixty years. Olalquiaga herself describes Greenberg’s essay as ‘fundamental’ to the anti-kitsch position that she attempts to challenge in The Artificial Kingdom, writing now from a vantage-point that follows the closure of the Modernist era, from a new and Post-Modern perspective.

Greenberg began his essay with an invocation of three examples of kitsch, each drawn from a different artistic field: a Tin Pan Alley song, a Saturday Evening Post cover (presumably by Norman Rockwell) and a poem by Eddie Guest (a forgotten poetaster). More than thirty years later, in 1971, speaking to a seminar at Bennington College, Greenberg came up with much the same list, its scope now broadened to include ‘bad movies, dime novels, bad TV and so on, where all that is involved is a matter of ingenuity, not inspiration, and above all, no risk on the part of the artist and also no risk for the spectator’. In 1939, however, Greenberg was still writing from a point prior to the triumph of American Modernism. He was attempting to justify Modernism by recalling the avant-garde’s origin in the secession of artists from the 19th-century French bourgeoisie, first into bohemia and then into the depoliticised embrace of ‘art for art’s sake’ and ‘pure poetry’. Artists became engaged in the search for an absolute, eventually realised through abstraction, not for the sake of abstraction in itself, but because abstraction was the only logical conclusion, once the imitation of nature had given way to formal exploration as the primary subject-matter of art.

‘Abstraction’ was used by Greenberg in a broad sense, to include not only Mondrian or Kandinsky, but also Picasso, Braque and ‘even Klee, Matisse and Cézanne’, each of whom he saw as deriving ‘their chief inspiration from the medium they work in’. Kitsch, in contrast, was the rearguard which had arisen simultaneously alongside the avant-garde: ‘popular, commercial art and literature with their chromotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc, etc’. Kitsch, for Greenberg, operated mechanically, formulaically, provided vicarious experiences and faked sensations, which changed according to style while always remaining essentially the same. Kitsch demanded ‘nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time’. In other words, kitsch was commercial art, debased, predictable, spurious and facile. In both America and the Soviet Union, it thrived because it ‘heightened reality and made it dramatic’, because it could be enjoyed without effort, because it found a ready market or because it flattered the masses.

For Greenberg, capitalism and Communism were at one in their preference for kitsch as the dominant form of artistic production. In the Soviet Union, artists were compelled to produce kitsch by the state. In the United States, the avant-garde were forced to labour in obscurity, appealing only to a handful of cognoscenti, while the masses revelled in their Saturday Evening Post covers, Hollywood movies, dime novels and popular songs. Greenberg’s argument, in fact, was unashamedly élitist. The need for an élite – an élite of outcasts, isolated and abused – was justified by the fact that it represented, however desperately, an alternative not only to capitalism and commercialism, but also to Stalinism and fascism, all of them culturally homogenising forms of mass society. It represented, in fact, difference and resistance, stubbornly maintained. Paradoxically, this avant-garde of outcasts eventually became the foundation of American cultural hegemony, creating an artistic movement which could be presented as daring, pure, idealistic, innovative, unstained by commercialism, free from the taint of either state or commercial control. It is as if Pollock’s triumph had relieved America of any responsibility for its own ever-burgeoning production of kitsch.

The problem which Greenberg confronted – or failed to confront – was, first, the way in which works long held to be masterpieces could somehow be turned into kitsch by the passage of time: the Mona Lisa, for instance, or, more alarmingly, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Monet’s Nymphéas. Paintings which were considered difficult or innovative in their own day could easily be normalised by time, becoming both instantly recognisable and hence, in Olalquiaga’s terms, opportunities for nostalgia, both for the tragic life of Van Gogh and for the sunflowers drenched in gold. Kitsch, it seems to me, is the inevitable companion of great art. In the 1970s, Greenberg was still harping on about Norman Rockwell and his Saturday Evening Post covers but also expressing his puzzlement at Pop Art, not quite dismissing it but obviously troubled by its vulgarity and its ready availability to populist responses. Soon afterwards he was frankly hostile to Conceptual Art, which could be seen as a deliberate rejection of a painterly tradition that had become irrevocably complicit with kitsch.

Was Post-Modernism now to be taken as the redemption of art from the Modernist kitsch of Sixties Colour Field painting? Or would Post-Modernism inevitably bring a new sequence of kitsch in its wake? Perhaps the arrival of ‘far-out art’, as Greenberg called it, blaming everything on Duchamp, would finally purge the art world of the outmoded painterly form of kitsch while opening the door to a new post-painterly variant: Mike Kelley’s stuffed toys, for example, battered and bedraggled for sure, but all the more gripping for that, like the proverbial clown with a tear. Could the spectre of kitsch ever be exorcised? Would the world of art always be forced to suffer a return of the repressed? Fortunately for him, Greenberg didn’t live to see the rehabilitation of Norman Rockwell, currently well under way and stage-managed by the new American art world’s most beloved critic, the Las Vegas-based Liberace-loving Dave Hickey. Hickey began his rehabilitation of Rockwell in ‘Shining Hours/Forgiving Rhyme’ (Art Issues, 1995), a text that was unashamedly nostalgic in its appreciation of Rockwell, harking back to the writer’s own happy childhood memories of Saturday Evening Post covers while affirming Rockwell as the great celebrator of American normality, the bard of ‘a general state of social and physical equanimity that is unparalleled in the history of humans’, praising the ‘kindness, comedy and forgiving tristesse’ to which Rockwell was devoted, all those ‘little victories’ which, Hickey reminds us, pave the way for a fully realised democracy.

More recently, Hickey returned to the fray with an article in Vanity Fair (November 1999) in praise of Rockwell’s After the Prom (1957), a painting which shows a teenage girl and boy, in formal dress, sitting sweetly at the bar on their tall stools as the soda jerk sniffs the perfume of the gardenia which the girl has proudly proffered to him, while a third customer, leather-jacketed, smiling, perched on another stool, savours this sentimental moment. As if sensing that his own enthusiasm for the everyday utopia of American small-town life, once upon a time, might not carry the day completely unaided, Hickey first invokes the work of Chardin and Fragonard and then manages to bring in Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, which he uses to explicate the meaning of the painting’s four looks; five if you include our own nostalgic look at what has now become ‘our gardenia’, a look which situates us ‘in the same relationship to that white blossom of tactile paint as the soda jerk’ who savours the perfume while we ‘inhale the atmosphere’. ‘When I was eight years old,’ Hickey writes, ‘Johnny Mercer was teaching me how to listen, and Norman Rockwell was teaching me how to see’ – and now, more than forty years down the long road of life, the debt can be repaid, complete with an iconographic explication whose premises are taken from the heir to Greenberg’s own mantle.

Hickey’s insistent enthusiasm for Norman Rockwell needs to be placed in its very specific art-world context. In effect, his articles function as curtain-raisers for the appearance later this year of a vast Rockwell Retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the culmination of a national tour of major museums. Ranged alongside Hickey as propagandist for the Guggenheim’s Rockwell revival is the New York Times art critic, Michael Kimmelman, who explains that Rockwell’s ‘simple sentimentality ... defied the fundamental credo of Modernism that good art should be difficult if not (better yet) discomforting’. Kimmelman nails his colours to the idea of ‘narrative transparency’ and ‘escapism in a sugary old-fogey mode’, as he (rather unfairly, I think) characterises Rockwell’s work, taking care to dissociate himself (as Hickey also does) from that part of the oeuvre which was explicitly dedicated to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and is now dismissed as didactic and moralistic. Hickey has even asserted that Rockwell could feel no ‘instinctive identification’ with the young black girl whom he painted for Look in 1964, as she was escorted into a newly desegregated school, and blames his friends Erik Erikson and Robert Coles for brainwashing him into an interest in poverty programmes and civil rights.

In the same issue of the New York Times there is a long feature on the work of Thomas Kinkade, whom I first heard of as the only painter quoted on the Nasdaq stock index, where he has posted $125 million in revenue for this fiscal year. Kinkade sells reproductions of scenes such as a snow-covered cottage or a waterfall in the forest, which range through ‘basic paper prints, canvas lithographs in numbered editions, “Renaissance Editions” enhanced by “master highlighters”, and at the top, “semioriginals” highlighted by Mr Kinkade himself’. In a strange way, Kinkade descends from Warhol, the art world’s pioneer of the enhancement of mass-produced images, but he is a descendant whose project is even more blatantly market-driven, more welcoming of the market values which opponents of kitsch, from Adorno to Greenberg, have always distrusted.

Not surprisingly, Hickey also offers a defence of the art market, of art as something which a dealer sells to people who genuinely love it, rather than art as something to be exhibited in museums by curators or financed by bureaucrats at the Arts Council or the National Endowment for the Arts. Hickey was once a dealer himself and he dwells lovingly on his days running a gallery: a ‘Mom and Pop store’, as he likes to think of it – a store in which the paper-boy who drops in on his round can come to appreciate the work of Ellsworth Kelly and Ed Ruscha. It all sounds very like a Norman Rockwell painting to me. There they are: Dave and Mary Jane, his wife, with the paper-boy and the mailman, a Christian Scientist who ‘had no problems with text or abstraction’, looking at a push-pinned drawing or a piece of neon or just a pile of debris on the floor (their very own gardenia), all of them in a happy trance of well-intentioned American normality, a world in which money is not really the point, just ‘a piece of green paper with a picture on it’, something you might use to buy ‘the occasional bowl of Wheaties’. As for the late Leo Castelli, he was just a dealer, too, but one who took a much greater risk, because the reputation of his gallery was so much greater and hence there was much more to lose if he showed paintings that nobody liked or even esteemed. The main point, Hickey thinks, is that showing in a famous gallery will get you plenty of attention:

even though it may appear to you that nearly everyone hates Jeff Koons’s work, the critical point is that people take time and effort to hate it, publicly and at length, and this investment of attention effectively endows Koons’s work with more importance than the work of those artists whose work we like, but not enough to get excited about.

Hickey’s critical rehabilitation of kitsch takes place in the context of his endorsement of the market and the very commercialism which Greenberg so abhorred and which has enabled a successful Post-Modernist like Jeff Koons (or Kinkade) to buy a virtually endless supply of bowls of Wheaties, should he so wish, instead of investing it in the stock market, which I suppose, from Hickey’s point of view, is just another, very inflated kind of Mom and Pop store in which people can follow their instincts and tastes and predilections in the normal American way over the Internet. Koons and Kinkade are appropriate heroes for Hickey, even if he and his friends don’t like Koons’s work enough to get excited about it. After all, Koons’s father actually owned an interior decorator’s store in which, in true Mom and Pop style, he sold his son’s early work, beginning with an oil ‘in the manner of Watteau’. In True Colours, Anthony Haden-Guest’s fascinating book on the inner workings of the art world, Koons is quoted as saying: ‘My father started selling my work for hundreds of dollars when I was nine years old. These horrendous paintings. This gave me a tremendous amount of confidence’ – enough confidence, indeed, to head off to art school and New York, where he quit painting and began to work with inflatables and household appliances. It was not long before Mary Boone scheduled a show for him and, ever the indulgent Mom, installed his rug shampooer piece in her office. Koons planned to put a revolving Mercedes on a turntable in Mary Boone’s gallery, but she unexpectedly cancelled the show, thereby propelling the unfortunate artist into selling mutual funds for a living.

After a show of his vacuum-cleaner pieces worked out rather disappointingly, Koons was offered a job by Merrill Lynch, which he turned down on getting an even better offer from Smith Barney. With the money that he earned from them he was able to get another show off the ground, but although the work sold, it still didn’t make a profit – which isn’t perhaps surprising, given what it had cost to cast a life-raft in bronze, for example. Still, as Hickey noted, it did get him talked about, and his next show was financed by a dealer. Koons was moving out of the Mom and Pop world by now, towards international celebrity. Then, in 1988, he created what may still be his most celebrated work, a life-size ceramic tableau depicting Michael Jackson playing with his pet chimp, Bubbles, the centrepiece of a breakthrough exhibition (entitled Banality) which sold out, according to Haden-Guest, earning $12 million split four ways between the artist and three separate dealers, whom I like to imagine chatting excitedly to the mailman when he dropped by. Recently, I stumbled unexpectedly on Michael Jackson and Bubbles in the Eli Broad Foundation’s contemporary art warehouse in Santa Monica: it is, I must admit, almost majestic in its loathsome kitsch grandeur. It certainly split the critics, whose response extended from contempt for ‘objects that carry the love of kitsch to a new level of atrocious taste’ to heart-felt praise for Koons’s ‘aesthetic perfect pitch’.

Koons is significant to any discussion of kitsch, not only because of his role in launching a new wave of kitsch iconography but because of his own shameless enjoyment of commodity culture and triumphant recycling of media-driven imagery, ranging from the mawkish to the pornographic. The purity of his shamelessness shines through so strongly that it is virtually bound to produce extreme reactions from both ends of the critical spectrum, pro and anti-kitsch, the delighted and the disgusted. Koons himself denies any cynicism in his choice of material, simply affirming his interest in communicating clearly with a mass audience and his belief that ‘the market is the best critic.’ Of course, it is this last contention which is both the most symptomatic and also the most dubious. Dave Hickey may not like Koons’s work all that much but he seems to share Koons’s faith in the beneficence of the market and, as such, finds himself tied, whether he likes it or not, to the same aesthetic presuppositions. Hickey, it seems, wants to have his market cake and eat it too, letting us know that nearly everyone in his corner of the art world hates Koons’s work, while applauding the market for bestowing its rewards on Rockwell, and Koons (and Kinkade) alike, without seeing any need to ask how monetary value can be disconnected from artistic value or even whether it matters that it can.

Kitsch, of course, is not purely and simply an artefact of the market. It fulfils an artistic function of its own and it brings genuine pleasure to its devotees. There aren’t many people who could claim that they have remained rigorously untouched by any aspect of kitsch. It is because we are all involved with it in one way or another that Olalquiaga is trying to make a distinction between the bad and good kinds, however open to question her specific criteria and preferences. ‘Melancholic’ kitsch, the kitsch she favours and celebrates, could be reinterpreted as a taste for a form of ‘magic realism’, a tendency in the art of the 1940s which Greenberg saw as a debased version of Surrealism, and rejected as another anti-aesthetic vulgarisation of Modernism, calling it ‘nostalgic and day-dreamy’, and accusing it of attempting to ‘depress’ modern art to a popular level, instead of ‘raising the level of popularity itself’. In Magic Realism Rediscovered: 1918-81, Seymour Menton argues that a group of artists whose work Greenberg summarily dismissed as kitsch – among them, Grant Wood, Peter Blume and Andrew Wyeth – should be seen in a line of descent from Le Douanier Rousseau and Chirico, artists Greenberg at least took seriously. Menton was struck by the sharp focus of Magic Realist paintings, their creation of a toylike world which strikes us as fantastic and uncanny, yet still convincingly possible. Greenberg wavered in his judgment of Magic Realism and such allied movements as Precisionism and Photo-Realism, finding it difficult to square his admiration for a photographer like Walker Evans with his distrust of any movement away from abstraction in painting.

Hyper-realism returned to the art world, however, in the much more popular form of installation art. Damien Hirst’s notorious shark suspended in formaldehyde could well be considered a gigantic and over-blown version of Rodney the hermit crab preserved and encased in his miniature glass sphere. Hirst’s shark is a kind of exaggerated Nature Gem, a hyperbolic example of high kitsch. In her chapter on ‘Rodney and Death’, Olalquiaga describes Rodney as caught in a state of limbo, like an insect caught in resin, as if in a trance or cataleptic stupor, stuck in ‘an infinite nightmare that knows no end and remembers no beginning’. The work is at the same time a representation of death and a meditation on it, ‘thanatopsis incarnate’. Damien Hirst’s shark is actually entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Olalquiaga’s insistence that Rodney ‘exists in a deadlock between two states of being, unable to fully launch into the lively fluctuations of the sea at night, or the solemn silence of a universe that has surrendered all claims to sensation’ indicates that her book, too, is a meditation on the physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living – in this instance, the ingenious, fascinating and melancholic mind of Celeste Olalquiaga. The effect of Damien Hirst’s shark on the viewer has been likened, by art critics, to the effect of a Natural History Museum diorama – another subject discussed in The Artificial Kingdom. In her chapter on ‘The Copy’, Olalquiaga claims the diorama for melancholic kitsch, just so long as it remains un-narrativised. If the diorama appears to represent a dramatic scene taking place in time, however, it falls back into the category of nostalgic kitsch, a fate spared Hirst’s shark as it was spared Rodney.

In the end it seems to me that the subtle distinctions Olalquiaga tries to make between different categories of kitsch are doomed to failure if they are treated as hard and fast aesthetic or ethical distinctions, fences separating the good sharks from the bad. While the notion that we can make clear distinctions between art and kitsch or between good (melancholic) kitsch and bad (nostalgic) kitsch is interesting, the truth is that kitsch and art and good and bad are always inextricable. They are not clear-cut and separate categories but contending impulses whose coexistence is central to the whole process of art-making. At the extremes there are works which are clearly kitsch or clearly not kitsch, while in between there are a whole series of works which cannot be categorised so clearly and so confidently. There is potential for kitsch in any work of art, not simply in black velvet paintings of Dogs Playing Pool or a Tretchikoff Chinese Girl bought off a barrow (as mine was) or Jim Shaw’s wondrous collection of Thrift Store Paintings. Kitsch, like the repressed, will always return, worming its way suggestively even into the work of a Rothko or a Pollock (Lavender Mist, Shimmering Substance). Why, as Susan Sontag once asked, ‘must a work of art restrict sentimental intervention and emotional participation, which are functions of closeness, in order to be just that – a work of art?’

We can have our doubts about the Modernist critics’ indiscriminate exorcism of kitsch without going to the opposite extreme and endorsing it altogether. Kitsch expresses unacknowledged longings and speaks to desires of which we were previously unconscious, capturing us – not through obviousness and calculation – but rather through stealth and happenstance. In this sense, Olalquiaga is right to sing its surreptitious virtues, to see a place where kitsch begins to merge into art, surprising us, catching us unawares, happened on as a found object which can cut across our preconceived notions with a touching shock of recognition. Even the most extreme, most ironic work of the avant-garde might benefit from just a glint of Rodney.

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Vol. 22 No. 7 · 30 March 2000

In the midst of his review of Celeste Olalquiaga’s book The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of Kitsch Experience (LRB, 17 February), Peter Wollen takes a sneering detour through my life and work that is so wilfully misguided that I would like to call attention to its infelicity. Wollen is perfectly welcome to his opinion of what he thinks I said, of course, and my actual views are readily available in print, so I do not wish to labour this point. The ad hominem snottiness of his tone is troubling, however, since I neither know anyone named Wollen nor recognise the critic with my name whom he takes to task. Wollen’s ‘Dave Hickey’, it would seem, is at once the putative inheritor of Clement Greenberg’s mantle (huh!) and a capitalist kitschmeister guilty by association with such bad characters as Liberace, Norman Rockwell, Jeff Koons and somebody named Thomas Kinkade, a commercial artist whom Wollen proposes as one of my ‘heroes’. He isn’t.

As to my other colleagues in this kitsch conspiracy: yes, I have written about Liberace with affection and respect and speculated on the consequences of his endeavour. No, I have never proposed him to be anything other than the shrewd entertainer that he was. Yes, I have written about Norman Rockwell with affection and respect as a gifted and knowledgeable narrative picture-maker with an enormous and sustained public vogue. I have even gone so far as to suggest that hanging one of Rockwell’s pictures in a museum gallery with the work of Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton and other American artists of that period would pose no great threat to the Republic. As to Jeff Koons and Clement Greenberg, I have mentioned each of their names exactly once in thirty years of writing, on the same page of Air Guitar, citing them both as public figures whom we invest with imaginary power in order to make our attacking them seem more daring and courageous. In this tiny, limited sense, at least, I seem to have momentarily inherited Clem’s mantle, if not the picture over it.

Dave Hickey
Las Vegas, Nevada

Vol. 22 No. 6 · 16 March 2000

Rodney, the hermit crab who illustrates Peter Wollen’s piece on kitsch (LRB, 17 February), appears to be a fine specimen of a Nature Gem. I grew up in Lake Jackson, Texas, a ‘science town’ which houses companies such as Dow Chemical. One of these companies, now defunct, was Iminac – short for ‘Imagination in Action’ – which produced a series called Nature Gems in the early 1970s. They contained all sorts of flora and fauna, including orchids, sea critters, tarantulas, and the head of a rattlesnake poised to strike. They were, I recall, very expensive and made in rather small numbers. My father, a plant manager, had one on the credenza in his office. (I believe it was also a crab.) Its rather plain geometric appearance and lush hardwood base matched the office’s carefully maintained tone of 1960s corporate Modernism. Indeed, this was the intended setting for Nature Gems. They all had the severe lines and plain, polished hardwood base that can be seen in the picture of Rodney. The technically interesting thing about them was the gel-like gunk inside which was chemically inert, transparent and had the same index of refraction as glass. If Celeste Olalquiaga had tapped Rodney’s dome, she might have noticed him shiver. I do not contest her characterisation of Rodney as kitsch, but he might crab about this reduction in social class and claim that he should be counted among the élite objects of a cool, austere Modernism.

Freeman B. Crouch III
Marble Falls, Texas

Vol. 22 No. 10 · 18 May 2000

I'm sorry – I didn't mean to imply, in my piece on kitsch, that Dave Hickey was Clement Greenberg's heir, as his letter presumes (Letters, 30 March). In fact, it was Michael Fried whom I thought of as the heir and consequently I was struck by the paradox of Hickey subsequently making use of Fried's work to inflate the reputation of Greenberg's particular bête noire, Norman Rockwell. On further reflection, I am happy to agree that if Hickey feels that the Greenberg cap fits, he might as well wear it. After all, he is America's leading art critic today, deservedly so, even if we don't agree about Rockwell or the market. The point that I wanted to make about Koons and Kinkade was that Dave Hickey's faith in the market as regulator of value in the art world was flawed, even from his point of view, because it could just as well favour artists like Koons or Kinkade, whose work he doesn't praise, as it could a Norman Rockwell whose work he champions.

Peter Wollen
Los Angeles

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