A bus sits idling and cannot find its driver. A few ancient automobiles avoid the potholes. Workers shuffle. The hotel rooms are not yet ready, and when they are there are no towels. When the coffee comes, it’s cold and it’s not coffee. The Cuban government has a hand in every enterprise — every farm, garden, store, hotel, factory and art gallery. Commercial galleries are few and far between. In this island of 11 million, a handful of chosen artists are the ones who are recognized, get the press and are hung in the public galleries. If taste and craftsmanship were criteria, there’s not much going on. The souvenir industry is stuck with the same old stuff. There are a few street artists. I’m surprised to find little of the painterly realism as was produced in Russia during the height of soviet optimism.
One has to ask if political and “educated” art choosing, in any country, gives an unnatural spin. Is there a chance that public art is pretty well always chosen for the wrong reasons? Is it possible that the best (along with the worst) contemporary art is found in commercial galleries in an atmosphere of freedom? And what happens when there are few commercial galleries?
Cuba is a place where time stands still. Its appeal is beyond charm. It’s tidy. There are no McDonald’s wrappers caught on fences along the highway. Here, little is wasted. Economic reverses as well as central planning have slowed development and redevelopment. Nevertheless, a massive restoration plan is underway in the old quarter of Havana. The beautiful colonial and art deco buildings of Havana remain.
Everyone here calls him “Fidel.” His countrymen know little of prosperity. It’s illegal for citizens to own a private automobile, computer or VCR. But here they have the highest literacy rate in the Caribbean. There’s no child labour. Health care is free. It’s an economy based on repair and conservation. But with incomes of $20 to $100 per month, there’s little left over for art. Right now Cuba is safe, docile, and poor. It’s a magic land where every village vibrates with traditional music, natural poetry and rumba. Where every freedom-loving would-be artist lives a dream that a nightmare will just go away.
PS: “The citizens of Cuba can be all things unto themselves.” (Fidel Castro)
Esoterica: People who cannot travel or are limited in the traveling of their minds, are not as creative as those who do. Complex and confusing environments with a variety of phenomena are the ones that stimulate creativity. Better art is made in places where there’s a feeling of choice. Cuba is a one-eyed ’59 Buick with a recycled Lada under the hood. It’s chugging on a dusty road that never seems to end. Fidel loves to blame the situation on the U.S. blockade. Artists know differently. Lovers of freedom know differently. Everyone waits.
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Getting to Cuba
by Kathie Enz
I am going to Cuba in a few weeks with Elderhostel on an “art and architecture” tour. Your letters are interesting. How did you go? Alone or with a group? And how did you get to see or talk to artists? I have been to many Spanish places, Mexico, Spain, Peru, etc. and find the remains beautiful and sad that no one can or does maintain so much of their heritage. What a waste! I’m really looking forward to the trip and getting my own sense of our blockade and its results, among other things.
(RG note) Our whole family flew direct on Air Transat from Vancouver, Canada. We hired a van and driver to take us where we wanted. There were no restrictions, although some people, including artists, were less than forthcoming about conditions. The art and architecture part is fascinating. So much is of interest and worth preserving.
Where to find art
by oliver, Texas, USA
In such an economy as Cuba’s you need to look for functional art: Weaving, quilts, ceramics. Also you need to look at the religious art. Go to the churches and the cemeteries. Man cannot resist his faith or beliefs, nor the esthetics of art, but when pressed must make it functional, to augment his faith. We have had such patterns throughout history.
The thing I found in Cuba was the remarkable smiling friendships that could be had even in this oppressive country. I was taken in, fed and made comfortable by people who had a genuine caring for their fellow humans. This under the nose of the government. I was told that if I was asked I was a “friend,” not a “paying guest.”
(RG note) Cuba is a movable feast of friendship. It is their art. Smiles captivate, music charms, chambermaids write neat notes in English wishing us a happy day. The Havana Port Manager dragged us up to his station to show how he handles freighter traffic. He’s proud. He trained his massive binoculars into the haze in the direction of Miami. “I have friends there too,” he said.
Problems in choosing public art
Public art is always chosen for the wrong reasons. Art selection by committee is a ponderous process. I have served on a few of these public art acquisition committees and we are all hobbled by the responsibility of spending money that isn’t ours on art. We can never select an artist ‘just because we like him.’ Our decisions must be justified. So over and over again, beautiful honest paintings with no veneer of redeeming social value are passed over in favor of hideous objects that (by cold-hearted design in my opinion) include references to as many political hot spots as possible. So we end up with giant backlit plastic monstrosities laminated with a hodgepodge of Xeroxed photos from the local archives and trite symbolic references to diversity and teamwork and history and technology that the ‘artist’ has just phoned in. Privately, most of the folks on the committee will say, “Well, I didn’t really like it personally, but the work we selected covers many social, economic and intellectual bases and celebrates diversity so how could I vote against it?”
Fernando puts it in perspective
by Jamie Lavin, Gardner, Kansas, USA
I guess this puts all my problems in the “not-so-big-a-deal” category! Guess I’ll get my fat ass back to the easel, where it ought to be carrying the head that needs to think harder, the heart that needs to drive those arms that hold the paintbrushes that push the pigments that make paintings that are free to sell at whatever the head says is fair in galleries that pay their rent so the paintings can hang all year underneath a flag that represents the giving of countless lives who believed in paying the ultimate price so I can sit here and be free enough to complain and vote and change and tax my wallet that sits underneath my fat ass at the easel, as the head thanks God above for the abilities and the rights that I did not pay for, yet get to hold as unalienable, and as the head worries for all those being called up to defend against terror & greed, it thinks of Fernando and wonders WHEN?
Communism and its effect on art
by John Vedilago, Goteborg, Sweden
Why is it so easy to place the blame on Castro and the Cuban socialist bureaucracy for the poverty and lack of creative output of Fernando Luiz? Here is an artist who is following all of your advice and rules for success. He knows his market, is priced competitively for tourists and those Cubans who can afford his work, and he’s willing, figuratively speaking, to paste the penis on the back of the canvas to satisfy the taste’s and morals of the buyers and the society in which he lives and works. And he is successful at selling his work. If you go to any similar open market in the world from Paris to Vancouver you have the same level of paintings and similar financial working arrangements. Galleries in the U.S. routinely charge not 18% but between 30 and 50% commissions, after taking out expenses for openings, promotions and of course sales tax. How many banal, mindless, repetitious, uninspired watercolors of islands, rocky seacoasts, barns and birds, can you find in the quaint little sea coasts of the purely freedom loving, semi-capitalist, tourist traps of the world? Do you not pay any income or sales taxes on your work? Do not artists in most countries have to pay fees to register and conduct their businesses?
If communism is such a block on artistic expression then what do we say to the emergence and success of painters like Malovich, and those of the Russian supremacist movement? Indeed, both Kandiniski and Chagal worked with great pride for the government.
Before we make Castro and Cuba’s socialist bureaucracy the villains, and Fernando a poster boy for grinding poverty, Let’s put Fernando Luiz, his occupation and work output, his children and disabled wife, on the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Better yet why not give him the full freedom of opportunity presented by the barrios of Los Angeles, or the inner cities of Detroit or Washington D.C. Let us remember that communism was originally “The Cure” for capitalism, not the other way around. Like a lobotomy it failed, the symptoms return, only this time you only have half a mind with which to deal with them.
Castro may not be my cup of tea, but despite all of his faults and flowery speeches, you must give the devil his due, he has had some successes. To name a few, Cuba the highest literacy rate in Caribbean, the waters, reefs, and natural resources of the island are managed and sound when compared to many other islands and countries in the Caribbean and the third world. Crime and drug use are not a major issues. The Cuban socialist bureaucracy has managed these small and limited accomplishments despite a 45-year continuous, aggressive, and vicious undermining of their efforts by the world’s most powerful nation.
(RG note) To be an artist may amount to living in your own world, but in my books it also means being open to the whole world. Socialism, with all its theoretical benefits, seems to require a closed shop. My point is that here in Cuba it’s my observation that socialism has laid speed bumps on the highway of creativity. While the government may aspire to do otherwise, it nevertheless denies the potential of the human imagination. Cuban socialism is a lofty ideal hatched in desperate times, and the result here is a chronic lack of imagination. Young people, for example, are tested and assigned a profession. Unless there are extraordinary circumstances, it’s pretty difficult to make a change. You’re stuck for life. And don’t complain. A complaint will have you join the ranks of the unemployed. Those better artists who do make the grade, for the most part, make their contribution by recycling themselves through teaching. There’s not even much of an “aggrandizement” business here. Fidel is in his own way humble — he sees his extensive speeches as his monuments. To be an artist in Cuba requires more than a license. You have to apply or be recommended. The expression I’ve heard most frequently is “It’s difficult.” A budding artist may be needed in some other sector of the economy — teaching, nursing, agriculture. Here, the worker-bees are more important than the butterflies. In a socialist state, sacrifice is more valuable than individualism. Even with Cuba’s marvelous historical galleries, rich folklore and remarkable traditions, most of the butterflies of Cuba are still in the caterpillar stage.
Cuba similar to Romania
by Veronica Fragman
I was in Cuba twice on a bicycle trip. It was bitter-sweet because it reminded me of my childhood in Romania: the empty stores, the shabby homes. But I found the Cubans very hospitable and in good spirits (they don’t know what they are missing therefore, ignorance is bliss) At one time we were biking from Santiago de Cuba, west along the shores of the Caribbean. What beautiful sights! I painted two scenes from the pictures I took there. I would go back anytime. I appreciate so much what I have today. I can buy whatever food I want, our house could be a home to at least 5 Romanian or Cuban families, and best of all, I have my own studio in one of the bedrooms. I also have the time and the disposition to be creative because my stomach is full and I don’t have to worry about tomorrow.
Woman on her own?
by Susan Martens, Champaign, Ill, USA
I’m very much enjoying your letters describing your travels in Cuba. Do you think it would be problematic for a woman to travel in Cuba alone? I am mostly interested in photographing the older buildings in Havana. Are there quality hotels within walking distance of the older area? Is it easy to find taxicabs? I would prefer to do an in depth study of just one area and I don’t intend to do any driving.
(RG note) No problemo. We stayed in a top end hotel just off the old area where you will want to go. The Hotel Sevilla (which figures in Graham Green’s Our Man in Havana) — about US$130 to 150 a night. There are other quite comfortable pensions that include breakfast down to about US$25 per night. Walk everywhere. Lots of taxis. Not too much traffic. In both architecture and humanity, the old city of Havana is a utopia of photo opportunities. As an American, in order to get into the country, you will have to be pretty serious about the cultural exchange potential of your visit.
Marching with a million Cubans in Havana
by John Nichols, Santa Paula, California, USA
(RG note) Sometimes we get letters that are too long to include in these responses. Everybody here read the following letter and we decided it should be included as is. It goes a long way toward an understanding of Cuba and the work that will have to be done to bridge a gap between two nations. Thanks, John.
To read the letter, click here.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes Jeanne Rhea who wrote, “Thank you for a peek into your thoughts, other lives and other places. Inspiring and thought-provoking. Some letters just give me a grin and others have me thinking for days on a particular subject. I almost feel guilty that I get so much for nothing.”
And Sylvia Lacey who asks, “When I hear of the conditions in Cuba I have to ask why are you visiting there?” (RG note) Curiosity.
And Yaroslaw Rozputnyak of Moscow, Russia who says, “All alive beings will eventually choose freedom.”
And Norman and Ruth McMullen of Northumberland, UK who wrote, “Our own creativity is around pottery, paper making, art & poetry. Space, dreams, journaling and following our hearts are resonating words at this moment.”