So far I have not found the Vermeer for which I have been searching for many years in bric-a-brac shops, that I know must be there somewhere. When found, I shall leave it to an ever-grateful nation.
On the other hand, I have found a great deal of bric-a-brac in bric-a-brac shops, and sometimes even an interesting book or two. For example, not long ago I found a copy of Sir Leo Chiozza Money’s book Riches and Poverty (1905), signed and dedicated to Sir Ernest Barker, the classical scholar and political philosopher. Sir Leo’s political career was destroyed by a typically British, that is to say prurient and hypocritical, sex scandal, but he was for a time a very influential economist, including for Winston Churchill, and was even for a time a government minister. To read him is to realise how little we (in Britain) have changed in the intervening eleven decades, except in the matter of prose:
The congestion of so much of the entire income and accumulated wealth of the United Kingdom in a few hands has a most profound influence upon the national development. It seems that the great mass of the people … can progress only in such fashion as is dictated by the enterprise or caprice of a fraction of the population …
We must strike at the Error of Distribution by gradually substituting public ownership for private ownership of the means of production. In no other way can we secure for each worker in the hive the full reward of his labour. So long as between the worker and his just wage stands the private landlords, so long will poverty remain, but not poverty alone, but the moral degradation which inevitably ensues from the devotion of labour to the service of waste. So long as the masses of the people are denied the fruit of their own labour, so long will our civilization be a false veneer, and our every noble thoroughfare be flanked by purlieus of shame.
This could be precisely the contention of the winner of the next general election in Britain.
Astringencies appears in every edition of Quadrant.
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The other day I was in a bric-a-brac shop looking at a display cabinet of china—cups celebrating the end of the Great War, royal weddings and so on—in the midst of which was a brightly-coloured plaster figurine of a baby in spectacles, sitting on the lavatory reading a newspaper (the newspaper dated it, of course, for nowadays it would surely be a smartphone).
“Isn’t it lovely!” exclaimed a middle-aged woman beside me, realising that I was staring at it, almost mesmerised.
Lovely! My opinion did not that way tend. On the contrary, I was appalled both by it and that anyone should find it lovely.
This object was worth a little more reflection than a mere shudder. After all, it did not fall to earth like a meteorite: it was the product of human labour, indeed of human design and, in a certain sense, skill. Such figurines do not make themselves by a process of spontaneous generation, as maggots were once supposed to appear in rotting meat. Who had designed it, and what was going through the mind of the designer as he did so? Was he a pure cynic, as presumably (and certainly as one hopes) are the poets of cheap birthday cards? Or did he believe that he was the Donatello of the water-closet?
Of course, the figurine was mass-produced, even if in what is nowadays called “a limited edition”. (Recently I bought some “limited-edition” detergent tablets for my washing-up machine, though presumably all “editions” of anything are limited.) But however many or few of these figurines were sold, the question I ask myself is how could anyone find such a thing attractive? In addition to Original Sin, is there such a thing as Original Bad Taste?
The evidence, in so far as there is any, suggests rather the opposite. In my experience, at any rate, peasants have rather good taste, within their limited means to express it. For example, rural African huts are usually shapely and even graceful, and when they are patterned or coloured it is in an instinctively tasteful way. Only when peasants have made the move to town does kitsch attract them, though then often it is often immediate and for ever. They quickly lose what may be called the eye.
The prevalence and attractions of kitsch interest me. Kitsch is not easy to define, though, like many things not easy to define, it is relatively easy to recognise. One day I had a sudden inspiration, to found a National Kitsch Museum. It would be easy and cheap to find sufficient exhibits to fill it, however large any conceivable space. I already have the founding exhibit: a plastic-cased alarm clock in the form of a mosque I bought in Istanbul for three euros. There were three colours to choose from: sky-blue, apple-green and baby-pink, and really, for the full effect, I should have bought all three, but in the end opted for the pink as being especially awful.
At the appointed time, a raucous muezzin begins to call, enough, I should imagine, to waken the dead let alone the mere sleeper. Indeed, whenever I hear him—he switches suras if you allow him to go on long enough—I think of those Victorians who feared premature burial (I have a small collection of books on this important subject). They invented many different methods of avoiding this terrible fate, including patent coffins with megaphones to alert passers-by to the presence of the living interred, and cords tied to the big toes of the recently deceased, or pseudo-deceased, in the undertakers’ chapel of rest, connecting them to a bell, sensitive to the slightest movement, in the undertakers’ office, like the defunct servants’ call-bells you sometimes still see in old mansions; but these methods, it seems to me, would quickly have been superseded by this mosque alarm clock, which would soon sort the dead from the comatose.
It is true, of course, that one very occasionally reads of people who wake up at their own post-mortems, and indeed I remember early on in my medical career being rather reluctant to pronounce someone dead in case he came to life again. Was it the consequences for the patient or for me (the mockery of my colleagues) that I feared? It always takes time and effort to sort out one’s own motives, and even then it may not be possible.
Another founding exhibit from the Middle East for my National Kitsch Museum would be a cruet set that I possess, the salt-cellar in the form of a sheik’s head in white headdress, the pepper-pot his lady wife, or one of his lady wives, in a jet-black niqab. Like the King Farouk style of luxury hotel decoration in the Gulf, this cruet set transcends mere aesthetic awfulness to become something greater, an object lesson in kitsch, like a teapot in the shape of a rabbit.
Alas, I shall never have the money to found my kitsch museum, or museum of kitsch, not because I cannot afford the kitsch, which (alas) I can afford by the ton, but because I cannot afford the building to house it. I also had a plan to put a correspondingly beautiful object next to the piece of kitsch, to point up the contrast: for, as Dr Johnson said, all judgment (including the aesthetic) is comparative. My museum would be enjoyable, but also didactic.
When shall we be free of kitsch? I think we need first to eliminate the root causes of kitsch which, of course, must lie in Sir Leo Chiozza Money’s Error of Distribution: for is it not obvious that so long as men belong to different classes they will like different things, and if most of the population cannot afford what they would like, they will come to like what they can afford, namely kitsch? Thus kitsch is a manifestation of economic injustice and inequity, and it is no good hoping for the generalisation of good taste so long as there is such injustice and inequity.
Therefore we need equality of taste as well as equality of opportunity and economic outcome. By far the easiest way to achieve this is the universalisation of kitsch and the prohibition of good taste. On my desk I have a pencil sharpener made of plastic in the design of a modern football, its surface divided into pentagons and coloured black and pinky-mauve. I have seen the future, and it is kitsch.
Anthony Daniels’s most recent book is his first collection of short stories, The Proper Procedure and Other Stories, published last August by New English Review Press under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.