De Gustibus Semper Disputandum Est

I suppose this book might be called a coffee-table book. It has the shape and the lavish illustration of that kind of thing. And I suppose that of its kind, this book isn't so bad, which is not to say that it's good.

The Sterns' alphabetical survey of bad taste has the merit of some historical information. The background supplied for "Baton Twirling" was informative, for instance. So was the lowdown on "Breasts, Enormous," "Hot Pants," "Twinkles," "Roller Derby," and "Welk, Lawrence." But there is a sense in which The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste is, like the bad taste it catalogues, sick, sentimental, trivializing, life-denying, and phony. A book about pornography or violence can seem as nasty as a book of pornography or violence—a point not lost on those who market such books. This book about bad taste is not going to be of consuming interest to those with good taste; rather, it will instruct those of debased standards on how to lower the level. Your surgeon should bone up on anatomy? But Jack the Ripper will read the book, too.

In their introduction, the Sterns try to take the high road. They begin by quoting Clement Greenberg on kitsch, but soon relapse to wallowing in the sleaze they know so well.

When things hang around this collective cultural Warehouse of the Damned long enough, they begin to shimmy with a kind...

Join now to access the full article and gain access to other exclusive features.

Get Started

Already a member? Sign in here