The ugly, the broken and the degraded

Remake of Cuban documentary.

All the manuals, even the most arduous treaties on aesthetics, establish the relativity of concepts like beauty or ugliness. An entire series of cultural, historic, climate, ethnic actors have an influence when the time comes for a defined human group to consider that a certain object is beautiful or not, or even a person with specific features and physiognomies. What’s important then is that within a given context the harmony that is considered a representation of beauty, or the lack of that harmony that decrees the ugliness of the judged, function according to the cultural tradition that differentiates or defines that social group, the heir and generator of those concepts (material and spiritual) and capable, as a social entity, of classifying and assessing its appreciations.

But even within one same social, cultural or even national group (when it refers to nations with a single culture), the concepts of the beautiful and the ugly can have their own variations, depending on the culture of the individuals, their filial education, the social and economic context in which their appraisals of life and the environment were formed.

In that same sense, living in a, let’s say, heterogeneous, impoverished, dirty and undisciplined context of coexistence generates a way of understanding life and appraising its external and even ethical components. The concepts of beauty and ugliness, like all the products of the human intellect, are movable and adapt to the manifestations of that environment. Even deeper values, of an ethical essence, about what is right or wrong can be confused, atrophied, altered….

It is well known that human beings are a social product, that is, the result of an education, coexistence, permanence in a certain historic context. And it is very difficult to escape from that oppression of the circumstances, even when there are endless examples of persons who have been able to come out of adverse milieus and carry out their life, or on the contrary, persons who grew up in favourable environments who socially, culturally and ethically degenerate. All these hundreds, thousands of cases, will always be notable because they are exceptions.

What I mean to say, after this long setting of the matter, is that if people coexist with the ugly, the dirty, the broken, the degenerated…their reaction to that milieu will have a logical and foreseeable harmonic manifestation with that state of things. And that is what is happening in Cuba: because there we have those manifestations of social and moral decadence that the government has recently denounced with alarm. But we should ask ourselves, are the individuals, the citizens the only ones to blame for such degradation?

Suffice it to recall the streets of Havana outside the tourist and privileged circuits (70, 80% of the city) to confirm the galloping extension and the real empire of that which according to our aesthetic concepts can be considered ugly – even disagreeable, repulsive. At times because of lack of resources, at others because of the rise of outlandish tastes, at others more because of the vandalism or neglect of what was attempted to save, in the majority of the cases because of the generalised and prolonged apathy of individuals as well as the state. What is alarming is that when the economic situation allowed it, citizens struggled to surround themselves with some beauty that would comfort their existence. What is unfortunate is that the authorities, in the face of the proliferation of what is dirty, emerging, broken, always have wielded as a reason the lack of resources, when it is not always true, but rather the result of the diversion of those resources or, even worse, the bad use that can and has been made of them. What’s terrible is that, hundreds of times, bad work, designs, planning and political haste or material delays have bequeathed us an environment full of improvisations and botched jobs.

The difference between the two poles of concrete economic possibilities (the 1980s and what has come afterwards) is the one that would exist in the images of the city and the persons if filmmaker Enrique Colina decided to now make the remake of his documentary Estética (Aesthetics), a classic of that decade…. The abysmal leap of the kitsch as a failed strategy of seeking beauty and the apathy toward the environment as a collective and generalised reaction. The lack of aesthetic education against the extended loss of values and possibilities.

What do I see right now around me? Streets that are falling to pieces, as if abandoned forever, full of holes and pools of pestilent water (which can even be sewage, like the ones that run in front of a bakery close to my house); sidewalks that were perforated and that, when covered, turned into rough ridges; a hole opened at the corner by someone, which no one sealed and thanks to the rains exhibits thick vegetation; insufficient garbage containers and, therefore, generally overflowing; small outlets made with four sheets of zinc, grocery stores that do not conserve their former glass windows, state offices with sunken ceilings and dirty walls, dilapidated buildings; hordes of stray dogs, starving and sick; people who walk the streets like zombies instead of doing so along the sidewalks and who walk along the street in the face of the indolent look of police officers, people who look for scraps in the garbage dumps…. I see individual and collective poverty. People who are only worried about surviving and whose only dream of a future – if they have one – is to find an individual way out to their material difficulties, in or outside the country…but through the easiest means, which is almost never that of sacrifice, study or work, since the experience of so much collective sacrifice, of people who have studied or of the most self-sacrificing workers is not especially encouraging, as we all know. And experience is worth something…. How many other persons in my environment see the same thing, coexist with the same thing, grow up in the same thing? And the authorities don’t see it, or saw it when the existing resources were ineptly used, when the economic balances went crazy? Don’t the local district councils see what is happening in their community?

It’s already said: human beings are social beings who also think according to how they live. And living surrounded by apathy, bad education, the defined aesthetic ugliness, the filth, the lack of paint, of order and concert, of economic impossibilities dilated for too long…can human beings be better? Will young people be better human beings? We have reached the demanded negative replies to these questions after decades of shortages and, above all, more than 20 years of survival and impoverishment of the urban space and the infrastructures, of a long time of emergent and crazy solutions. And if the protagonists of many reprehensible attitudes or concepts are the citizens, they are not the only ones responsible for such a material and mental state of an entire society. (2013)

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