I haven’t been able to move past my intrigue with Communist Kitsch – there are so many directions to turn and explore. It started with my last post, when I poked fun at a few of the items I had collected and kept long past their due date. I cajoled facebook friends to post kitsch they own and love; and the enthusiasm spread. Here’s some of what turned up. The goose lamp might even be Communist Kitsch; it looks more Soviet than Vietnamese, but I don’t know the origins. I was at café in Elmsdale, Cup of Soul when I discovered a delicious collection of kitschy animals. While gingerly explaining the meaning (junk to others, but you love it) of kitsch, I asked to take a few photos; they were more than accomodating, thus the dancing cows. And on a recent call zoom call with classmates from my MFA, I mentioned my fascination with Communist Kitsch and as soon as the phrase slipped from my lips Phil swung his swivel chair around and dove behind a piece of furniture. When he emerged, he was unfurling a Soviet Propoganda poster, not unlike this one, which he sent later.
But it’s not all chuckles and laughter.
My interest in Communist Kitsch took hold at the Cong Caphe, a coffee shop near our apartment in Hanoi. The décor of the cafe spoke to me in its simple aesthetic. And it clearly appealed to others, because it was almost always busy – occupied by twenty somethings and foreigners. I wondered how older Vietnamese, the un-millienials, who may have even fought in the war, saw this business. Was it a mockery or even a bastardization of the few material items they may have owned in the past? Here’s one answer found in an article on a website hosted by the United Nations Refugee Agency. This piece from Radio Free Asia, is about a café in Hanoi, not the Cong, being ‘castigated’ for its ‘blasphemous décor’. The article posted here, was written in 2013, only 3 years before we went to Hanoi. It points to some of the questions that I’ve had about the strange companionship of capitalism and communism. Not everyone is charmed by Communist Kitsch.
When you plug Communist Kitsch into a search engine you end up with a lot of articles, commerical venues and photos of propaganda posters, similar to the one Philip sent me. In Vietnam, reproductions of old posters are sold everywhere in tourist shops. If you believe kitsch is purely ‘gaudy and tasteless art’ this can be confusing. Many of the posters are beautiful and use strong graphic detail tell a story. I was seduced by them. There are layers upon layers in these images and one of the best places to learn how to decipher the message and understand the context in which the images were created is Dogma. This private collection holds a significant number of posters and photos that were created during the war in Vietnam. Look at the detail behind the mother and daughter.
I would love to know what Clement Greenberg, the 20th century writer and art critic, would have said about each of these images. An American, known for his writing on kitsch, wrote this in the late 1930’s.
Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time.” 
I’m not sure his words fully apply to the experience of looking at 50 year old Communist Kitsch by a Canadian in 2021. I don’t think the propaganda is spurious. Those who created it, believed in it but perhaps I’m not fully grasping his sentiment. I know that Greenberg’s ideas are not directed to communism, kitsch is kitsch, whether it’s produced under capitalism or communism or any other label. Greenberg’s writing on kitsch is ubiquotous. Here’s one more quote.
Kitsch is deceptive. It has many different levels, and some of them are high enough to be dangerous to the naive seeker of true light.
This feels more relevant and points to the subversive nature of kitsch; coming forward on a backdrop of nostalgia and sentimentality, (which should not be confused with age). I know that much of the kitsch in my life, whether I bought it yesterday or two decades ago, is an item that reminds me of an event or a person or a period in my life. Those connections, between material goods and feelings, are easily warped and twisted, and one can spend much time contemplating the genuine value of kitsch, why humans collect so much of it and where real beauty exists. This is why so many have written dissertations on kitsch, contemplating its significance and place in our lives. This can’t be worked through in a few words, but I just wonder if kitsch is determined by the relationship between the person and the item, rather than the items and the times. I’m sure it’s not as simple as that.
I’d like to redirect the conversation one more time. Trang, the creator of the website HanoiMinitrue, didn’t just answer my question about the Public Notice Boards when I posted this photo in my last piece Communist Kitsch: More than a look. Her instagram feed and her website have supplied the beginning of many threads about the dimensions of Communist Kitsch. For example, here’s a link to a post on her feed where a poster is taking up a large part of a Public Notice Board. Here is the poster on it’s own.
Posters like this are peppered everywhere in Vietnam right now. This one says ‘mask up’.
As soon as I saw Trang’s image, I remembered an article in the Guardian last year about how these propaganda posters have contributed to the fight against the pandemic in Vietnam. It suggests that contemporary Communist Kitsch and heavy punitive fines for violating the regulations pertaining to Covid, has helped the Vietnamese government fight the spread. There’s a vague resemblance to what’s happened in Nova Scotia. Our former Premier told us to #staytheblazeshome and it went viral; our Chief Medical Officer, Robert Strang gets on the airwaves often, with mostly clear and consistent messaging. Similar yes, but the same? Not entirely. I think it would be an interesting conversation to have with people who have lived under democracy and communism.
Here’s another of the posters that’s been circulating across Vietnam. This one says to ‘Stay Home is to Love Your Country‘. I’m uncomfortable turning the fight against Covid into nationalist propoganda, but I’m going to drop that thread again.
Instead I’ll ask if practical and useful items can still be called kitsch? Or does the definition change when kitsch saves lives? I just don’t know.
I started this by talking about the sand I collected as a teenager, which was only relevant to my father (the supplier of the some of the sand) and myself. Communist and Capitalist Kitsch, whether it’s propoganda posters or toys from a McDonalds’ Happy or Meal or a ball cap telling me to ‘Just do it‘ remind me of the power behind an small and seemingly insignificant item. I struggle with possessions on many levels, but I also relish them, particularly when craft and artistry is involved. I’m going to park the angst for a brief time, with many of the questions, and let this small step into Communist Kitsch inform my own pursuit for beauty and meaning; a pursuit that continually shifts but never ends. As always I’m interested in your thoughts.