Say hello to Rodney

Peter Wollen

  • The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience by Celeste Olalquiaga
    Bloomsbury, 321 pp, £20.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 7475 4535 9

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.

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