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Everything Old is New Again

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Full-length statue of Voltaire. Basalt. Height,  12-1/4 in., Digital ID 490833, New York Public LibraryWould you want a commemorative figurine of Norman Mailer or Germaine Greer? Would Tom Wolfe look good fired in clay?

Our postmodern era has banished the time-honored desire for such celebratory decorative arts. The ancient Romans placed busts of their ancestors in household shrines. The Enlightenment era saw the rise of the great English and European potteries that produced commemorative likenesses of monarchs and generals.

The Romantic Revolution, however, instigated a real demand for such objects with its celebration of the cult of the individual. Bonaparte and Beethoven busts adorned the mantelpieces of the well-to-do, the artistic, and the arrivistes. Naturally, the Victorians took their commemorative ware quite seriously. America was not immune to this vogue, choosing to depict presidents and war heroes.

But there is no place for the commemorative Barka Obama figurine, no matter how cute he might be. At best, he can hope for a bobblehead. Our postmodern perception of celebrity and “worthiness” has come a long way from the Victorian nod to greatness. Perhaps the most painful reminder of how much commemorative objects have failed to stimulate modern decoration lies in the items I have tucked away in drawers in my home. They were created to mark the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. And we all know how that turned out.

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