By creating this secure understanding of the world where performance, repetition, maintenance and constant reinforcement of an individual’s identity in relation to society are acted out, kitsch becomes part of a repetitive system. This repetition is a powerful system reinforcing totality and universality in addition to over-riding the threat from the cultural and social pre-revolution material vestiges. … the repetitive quality of kitsch provides the existential security of a closed cosmology of cultural objects, where novelty and innovation are safely excluded… (Binkley, 2000: 145)
Hence, the repetitive quality of kitsch forms the very bases of its relationship with memory and nostalgia. Kitsch repeats the past. Boym argues that within Russian visual culture, there is no space for multiple layers of historical memory. The ‘past’ is limited to ‘old’, to the most immediate history being negated by the ‘new. ‘ Kitsch helps to integrate this past with the new through repetition. … kitsch manipulates through objectification of the effects of art, and through ready made formulas that function like pre-modern magical incantations known to trigger specific emotional responses…
(Boym, 1994:16) In contrast to Binkely’s theory Sabonis-Chafee (1999) writes that the Soviet reaction to mass-produced kitsch can be explained using a ‘hypodermic effects model’ where the audience absorbs the information immediately and without altering the message. Kitsch’s advantage being; ‘its power to inject, into the essentially inert audience, both its information and its point of view’. As a result, shared definitions of a society’s goals and needs could be conveyed through the kitsch objects present in everyday Soviet life.
In addition to this, the totalitarianism of the state becomes internalized in individuals through the material culture they have been surrounded by, resulting in compliance and auto-totalitarianism. This has led to most cultural critics regarding Soviet kitsch as more dangerous and more potent than its Western versions. Where, according to Kundera (1991), kitsch supports socialist ideologies as it becomes part of a repetitive system geared towards mass production. … in the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of feelings reigns supreme.
The feelings included by kitsch are the kind multitudes can share. Kitsch derives from the basic images engraved in people’s memories… (Kundera, 1991: 250) Kitsch & Memory in Soviet Russia When kitsch is used in a state policy as an approved way of understanding reality, as was witnessed in Russia, it becomes ‘totalitarian kitsch’. As such, everything that infringes on it must be banished, and the result is: communist kitsch symbols mass-produced to create sentimentality that reinforces the regime.
This is further explored by Friedlander (1990), who states that: … such kitsch has a clear mobilizing function, probably for the following general reasons: first, what it expresses is easily understood and accessible to the great majority of people; secondly, it calls for an unreflective emotional response; thirdly it handles the core values of a political regime or ideological system as a closed, harmonious entity which has to be endowed with ‘beauty’ to be made more effective… (Friedlander, 1990: quoted from Sabonis-Chafee, 1999: 365)
This semiotic aspect of kitsch, signalling socialist realism, collectively aids the spirit of communism, and therefore kitsch objects can be said to possess agency (Gell, 1998). This agency was effectively used throughout Russia during the Soviet period in strategically constructed propaganda, and is still used today in modern day advertising. In Russian, the word propaganda bears no negative connotations, and can be likened to the capitalist term marketing. If then, we consider soviet propaganda as a marketing of communist ideals; kitsch can be understood as a type of marketing strategy.
Through slogans, sculptures, and exhortations, sentiment was packaged and offered with an associated kitsch image which was met by wide appeal. These images of manufactured sentimentality make up the essence of what is recognised as ‘totalitarian kitsch’. In an environment where suddenly unfathomable technology was questioning their ability to understand the materiality of the world, kitsch gave security and comfort, as the mass of unoriginal and sentimental artefacts acted as an anchor for their consumers.
By supplying reassurance that what is to come will resemble what has gone before, and that the hazards of innovation and uncertainty are far away, security was promoted. Lindquist (2002) explains that due to the manufacturing of sentimentality by kitsch, no one is totally immune to it, not even the most sophisticated, as Kundera and Friedlander also admit: most people are, at least at some points of their lives, sensitive to the allure of, say, romantic love, or the beauty of the sunset.
In other words, the mode of representation with which kitsch operates, is iconic and indexical: it presents, rather than represents, the widely shared images of happiness, nostalgia, and beauty. When discussing kitsch and memory, nostalgia is an important area of discussion, where differences between ‘high’ culture and ‘popular’ culture and between ideology and everyday life, become blurred. This can be explained by using the example of food culture, where relatively cheap copies of formerly expensive luxury products came to play an ever important role.
These items soon became essential to the many official and personal celebrations, which were typical of Soviet everyday life, with the best known examples being, Soviet champagne, cognac, caviar and chocolate. The message that these goods carried was clear: everyone could now enjoy the standard of living earlier restricted to members of Russian nobility or the rich bourgeoisie. (Gronow, 2003: 33) One could say that the Stalinist Soviets systematically suppressed formal culture and centralized Socialist Realism in the form of kitsch.