Art and Cuba Now
Fusco, Coco, The Nation
The impact of the three-decade U.S. embargo on Cuban economic and political life is a familiar story. But the blockade has also succeeded in making any progressive effort to engage with Cuba within the United States into a politically charged act designed as much to prove this country's intolerance as to counter-act cold war depictions of the island. The latest chapter in this saga is a group show of contemporary Cuban art now on exhibit at the Bronx Museum. Titled "The Nearest Edge of the World: Art and Cuba Now," the show presents nine artists' work as the culmination of the island's visual-arts renaissance of the 1908s. These works, argues co-curator Rachel Weiss, testify to the success of the revolutionary experiment. Unfortunately, due to the hazards of intercultural exchange between the United States and Cuba, what we actually get to see here is only a mute version of the movement--or at least, what the movement was at its high point three years ago.
Crossing the gulf between the United States and Cuba is like walking through a mirror -- it can shatter your preconceived images and/or force you to read everything in reverse. If postrevolutionary Cuban culture has proved anything, it is that htere is no consensus as t the nature of radical aesthetics, cultural identity or art's relationship to social context. Each generation of artists and critics in Cuba has defined these things differently, and debates draw on beliefs, practices and arguments that antedate the revolution. However, artists and bureaucrats alike generally agree that the development of democractically acceptable arts education and the stabilization of cultural institutions in 1970s gave brith to a new generation of artists. They debunked cultural bureaucarts' attempts to graft social realism imported from Eastern Europe onto Cuban art and the ultraleft position that Cuba had to erase its past and make its own new culture (since any assimilation of artistic styles from the capitalist world was a sign of ideological deviance).
At the start of the 1980s several artists created local forums for discussion and began to seek out contact with the "internatinal" art world by traveling to and participating in exhibits abroad. At the same time, critics and officials found new ways to justify their interest in popular culture. They pointed to the long history of eclecticism in Cuban art, influenced by Western capitalist styles, and the legacy of anticolonial resistance through both Afro-Caribbean and criollo (Cuban-born of Spanish descent) culture.
As the "new Cuban art" of the 1980s gained recognition internationally, Cuba's image improved. But being cultural emissaires put those artists in a position of relative privilege, which can easily become a sore point. The Higher Art Institute of Cubanacan, where many of them have studied and taught, is an occasional target of criticism from conservative hard-liners in Cuba. It is also true that Cuban artists who travel abroad are harassed by right-wing Cuban exiles and discouraged from returning.
The young artists who came to prominence as part of this movement can be divided into two groups. The first half broke ground in the early '80s by introducing a conceptualist orientation, popular cultural sources and other non-traditional materials into their work. The second group, many of whom are represented in "The Nearest Edge of the World" and who studied with their slightly older peers, are best known for their biting social commentary directed at the weaknesses and hypocrisy of their own system. Their primary tools have been happenings and other performances, scatological humor and political satire, graffiti and other high-and run tactics. While the arts have always been a barometer of the range of permissible individual expression within this collectively oriented society, these artists, most of whom are under 30, have pushed the boundaries the furthest. Their supporters argue that they embody the revolutionary spirit of the rectification campaign initiated in 1987 by Fidel Castro to counter excesses and errors. …