THE ARTIFICIAL KINGDOM by Celeste Olalquiaga


a Treasury of the Kitsch Experience
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A playful yet intellectually rigorous examination of kitsch: its history, symbolic import, and emotional resonance. In her second book, Olalquiaga (Megalopolis: Contemporary Cultural Sensibilities, not reviewed) brings the full weight of her academic training (she has a Ph.D. from Columbia Univ.) to bear on an unlikely subject, reclaiming kitsch from the dustbin of art history. The very word conjures up the worst atrocities of taste, and yet the author manages to imbue all sorts of questionable kitschy objects with undeniable dynamism. Olalquiaga begins by confronting her own attraction to kitsch in the form of a preserved hermit crab in a glass globe—an object she first caught sight of (and then bought) in a Victorian bed-and-breakfast. From the acquisition of that humble item, she undertakes an exploration of the history of kitsch, from the “parlor oceans” (a.k.a. aquariums) of the 19th century to the dream spheres of paperweights, among other memorabilia. While the objects themselves vary, her argument does not: Olalquiaga makes a convincing case that our fascination with kitsch—and particularly with kitsch items that connect to the natural world—results from our alienation from nature. Thus we are bound to try to “repossess the experience of intensity or immediacy” through artificial objects that seem to capture life, however inexactly. That effort of repossession seems doomed from the start, since kitsch oscillates constantly between the embodiment of lived experience and its loss, exuding the “peculiar sadness of broken or even half-forgotten dreams.” Olalquiaga doesn—t hesitate to implicate herself in her own musings on kitsch’s attractions. Her humor, as well as her insight, make this book a peculiar and delightful piece of scholarship. (b&w and color illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Dec. 18th, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-43393-7
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1998