Under the Totalitarian Rule of Kitsch

Dariela Aquique

Fiesta de 10 años.

Kitsch (origin: 1920s, German) art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality…”

At every step in the life Cubans are beaten over the head with officialized kitsch, from posters with the faces and names of the “Five Heroes” forming a star or the crappy neighborhood decorations for the annual CDR festivities.

Or the cheesy adjectives used by the media to apotheosize some agricultural collective for having surpassed their potato production plan.  Or the tight-lipped and well-coached speeches of athletes in front of the cameras when they receive a medal.  Or the fiftyish decor of schools, hospitals and restaurants here.

The Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his excellent novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, gives a masterful description in one of his chapters: “(it) is a world in which shit is denied and everyone behaves as if it didn’t exist.  This ideal aesthetic is called kitsch.”

My attention is captured by how this is adopted in everyday life.  Each day to the next is crammed with vicissitudes where it becomes a major struggle to put something to eat on the table, where transportation is a chaotic, yet everyone seems to ignore these harsh realities.

Curiously, we’re divided into two groups:

1 – The proletarian family, whose budgets are based on negligible wages that are insufficient to cover the basic needs of a household.  Nonetheless they squirrel away pocket change for years so they can celebrate a lavish wedding or birthday parties for their daughters when they turn 10 and 15.

2 – Families that make up the nascent Cuban middle class (or “the new rich”), those living on remittances from relatives living abroad, or professionals returning from missions in Africa or Venezuela, all with guaranteed lifetime salaries in convertible currency and containers of goods and latest-technology home appliances obtained on their trips.  Plus we need to add the families of high-level political or military officials.

For this latter general group, celebrations don’t imply sacrificing to afford the high costs of suits and gown rentals, photographs, “memento videos,” hall rentals, decorations, MCs, light shows, buffets or drinks.

For the first group however, these culminating events can mean long days of hunger, literally speaking, and years wearing the same pair of shoes.

However, neither of the two sides will miss the opportunity to be center of comments by neighbors, with expressions like: “Girl, did they do it up!” or “Man, they went all out!”

Under the sweltering Caribbean heat, girls will sit imprisoned under huge fabric dresses that only make us see them sweat.  They’ll pose for a countless number of slides and keep changing outfits as long as the family’s “bankroll” holds out.  These ridiculous ceremonies include choreographies and toasts that cost what’s equivalent to the amount needed to repair their houses.  Yet these galas supported by many parents who give in to the irrevocable decision to throw a quinceañera (“sweet fifteen”) birthday party.

Imitating the Cuban bourgeois prior to 1959 or copying the rich and famous lifestyles seen on Latin American soaps and TV series, Cubans place their bets on kitsch.

But this goes for not only those of us from the island.  Large numbers of people from all over the world and in all societies are involved in this; kitsch is a phenomenon of all humankind.

Still, regarding all of this, I also agreed with Kundera when he said:

 “(… ) In a society where there exist various political currents and their influences are limited or they negate each other, we can more or less escape the inquisition of kitsch.  The individual can preserve their particularities and the artist can create unexpected works.  But where a single political movement has all the power, we suddenly find ourselves under the rule of totalitarian kitsch.”

2 thoughts on “Under the Totalitarian Rule of Kitsch

  • Just got back from Miami (where I attended the 50th anniversary my graduation from Miami Palmetto High School, Class of 1961), and can attest to your assessment, Dawn. Just one example: after accidentally ripping the cover of the paperback I was reading (Melville’s “Moby Dick”), I went in search of a roll of scotch tape with which to repair it at the nearby Dadeland Mall (up the street from the hotel where the reunion was being held). After an hour of searching the mall, all I could find were many opportunities to buy garish, overpriced clothing, perfumes, jewelry, electronics, etc., but not a single store selling every-day necessities. You’d never know that we’re in the middle of a recession/depression, even though Miami is one of the “ground zeroes” in the housing industry’s bust. At the Dadeland Mall the frenzy of consuption continues unabated. (Up here in New England, whole malls have become “ghost towns,” though the housing bust never reached the astronomical levels of Florida, Nevada or California).

  • The Kundera quote is nonsense. Today’s garishness and spending beyond one’s means to out due the neighbors is not a matter of politics… it is a matter of the culture of consumerism, competition, superficial relations, and propaganda that seized most of the planet several decades ago. The sociological and psychological underpinnings of which are inserted into society by those manufacturing, or financing the manufacture of, all the junk one “needs” to buy in order to keep up with the neighbors. Regarding rights of passage such as weddings, quinceaneras, etc. nearly all cultures have been going “all out” on such events for centuries. And hey, brace yourself. If you think it’s bad in Cuba… wait til you see the Miami, arguably one of the most ostentatious and vainglorious places on earth !!!

Comments are closed.