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 travelling 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.
This letter was previously published as “The art of Cuba” on January 10, 2003.