The Book of Kitsch

Decor de Barbara d'Arcy for Pierre Cardin

Roxanne Arsenault is an expert on kitsch. Her house is partially a kitsch museum. She’s got her master’s in the kitsch of commercial spaces and is following that up with a PhD on the exotic kitsch restaurants of Montreal. “Alpenhaus,” she says when I ask for an example. “Bar-B-Barn.”

Who ever said academia was boring?

At any rate, Arsenault knows kitsch when she sees it, and she’s very careful to distinguish between kitsch, camp, and bad taste.

Tiki Road Trip

Tiki Road Trip

“Bad taste is subjective,” she points out. “Kitsch is more objective. It’s about excess and imitation and being fake. It’s read with emotion and the senses, not with the intellect. Camp has a bit more irony, while kitsch is meant to be naïve and authentic and playful. “

It’s this kind of precision that makes Arsenault ideal to curate a book collection on her area of expertise at Librarie Formats as part of its Formats X series. The series allows experts and “creatives” to select works related to particular theme. According to Formats’ curator of programming Claudia Eve Beauchesne, “The series is part of an initiative to engage with new audiences and a way to enrich the store’s selection. The selected publications are for sale, and are integrated in our permanent inventory at the end of each exhibit.” Other initiatives include pop up shops at events like Pop Montreal as well as in-store events such as workshops, talks, performances, and publication launches. In 2014, Formats X will collaborate next with New York’s Frank Traynor, curator of the Perfect Nothing Catalogue.

Psychologie du Kitsch by Abraham Moles

Psychologie du Kitsch by Abraham Moles

As for Arsenault, she picked out a number of books that seem like natural choices, such as books on theory or on artists that practice kitsch. Many are art books, such as a book on kitsch and architecture, or about kitsch in different cultures, such as one about Mexican kitsch. Then there are some surprising picks — Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. “He’s really one of the main literature authors that worked with notion of kitsch,” says Arsenault. “For him it is pejorative.” Another unexpected pick is Umberto Eco’s La Guerre du Faux.

Some books, however, do address camp and bad taste. “I wanted to have a selection of books representative of kitsch, but also its more enlarged family,” says Arsenault.

Arsenault is excited about the project. “I think it’ll be interesting she says. There’s a whole lot in there and it’ll be great for Christmas presents.”

Kitsch cultural politics and taste Art Nouveau Revival Hermann Broch Quelques Remarques a propos du Kitsch

Roxanne Arsenault’s curated book launch Formats X Roxanne Arsenault: KITSCH takes place at Formats (2 St. Catherine E) on Dec. 11th at 5 p.m. Books on display until January 15th, 2014. 

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