- Enchanted Objects: Visual Art in Contemporary Fiction by Allan Hepburn
Allan Hepburn’s Enchanted Objects contemplates the centrality of art objects—paintings, statues, books, porcelain, vases, excavated ruins—in contemporary fiction. Considering how these objects circulate in novels of the past forty years, Hepburn uses literature as a leaping-off point to theorize aesthetic value in culture writ-large. His description of his primary sources aptly summarizes his own monograph: like the novels Hepburn analyzes, Enchanted Objects “speculate[s] on what an artwork is and does,” as well as “historicize[s] value and critique[s] museum culture” (10–11). Organized by topic (details, ornamentation, fragility, ugliness), Hepburn’s meditation integrates discussions of museums and objects (The Museum of Jurassic Technology, The Portland Vase, Peter the Great’s collection of pulled teeth) into its expansive study of recent fiction and several centuries of theory. As such a capacious archive intimates, Enchanted Objects reflects Hepburn’s wide-ranging interest in contemporary visual art, museum culture, and determinations of aesthetic value.
Hepburn’s study moves fluidly between the novels he analyzes and the questions of aesthetic and economic value dramatized by the narratives, and it is these questions of non-fictive cultural investment that are ultimately Hepburn’s major concern. In his second chapter, for example, Hepburn analyzes the function of detail in recent novels that feature the paintings of seventeenth-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, most notably Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring (1999). Developing a poetics of detail that focuses on literature but considers art objects more broadly, Hepburn suggests that detail’s role in the narrative and style of these specific works of fiction has its corollaries in painting and other aesthetic forms. In the particular case of these Vermeer novels, Hepburn contends, the details of paintings and other art objects reveal often hidden or obscured issues of gender, class, and labor. Thus, Hepburn concludes, “details are not [End Page 408] valuable in themselves, but function as the repository of value” in both narrative and visual art (86).
In subsequent chapters, Hepburn relies on similar analogies to advance claims about the economic underpinnings of contemporary aesthetics in literary and nonliterary contexts. His third chapter, for example, focuses on ornamentation. Engaging theories of ornament by Kant, Blake, Ruskin, and Baudrillard as well as the case studies of Allen Kurzweil’s A Case of Curiosities (1992) and Thomas Wharton’s Salamander (2002), Hepburn argues that ornamentation functions in both an economic and extra-economic aesthetic of valuable excess. Kurweil’s and Wharton’s novels, Hepburn proposes, “recuperate ornamentalism as an aesthetic” through their narratives and literary style (112). Reinforcing the novels’ metafictional representation of books as objects of ornamental value, “Kurzweil and Wharton create an ornamental style characterized by exuberance, digression, narrators’ intrusions, and puzzles” (88). Hepburn concludes, “Although the narrative trajectory of Salamander, dedicated as it is to the making of an infinite book, purports to demystify cultural production, the generous detail and ornate structure of the novel maintain the mystery of language and its textual manifestation in books” (128). Thus, Hepburn argues, both novels affirm the potential of their own physical form—the book—as a valuable aesthetic object, regardless of its market worth.
The second half of Enchanted Objects concentrates on museum culture and its literary dramatizations. In Hepburn’s discussion of Bruce Chatwin’s novels and nonfiction prose, the organizing concept of fragility takes on several meanings, connected by shared issues of collection, ownership, and possession. First, fragility exists as a physical property that increases an object’s aesthetic value, as in the case of the state-protected porcelain that the eponymous protagonist of Chatwin’s Utz (1988) collects, protects, and ultimately shatters. Second, fragility characterizes the cultural status of objects in the “long history of looting and breakage” involved in cultural acquisition (171). Third, fragility describes aesthetic reception and the viewing experience in light of “the devitalizing effect that museums have on objects” (159), as institutional practice “dehistoricizes and rehistoricizes artefacts” (160). Given their potential for damage in each of these contexts, fragile...