Art and Politics in Cuba in the New Millennium
A Brief ReviewFebruary 16, 2018
This is one of several articles commissioned for and published in conjunction with the 2018 Seminario Fundación Cisneros, Disruptions: Dilemmas Regarding the Image in Contemporaneity.
I. Designation of Origin
Between its questioning of ethics and the pragmatism of the market, Cuban art of the new millennium has been characterized by its confrontation of the limits of political control on the island. It has in part assumed this circumstance as a stamp, a brand or “designation of origin” that is quite appetizing to foreign demand, and in part it has taken advantage of controversial themes relative to the informative restrictions and the ideological contradictions of the revolutionary government in order to position a critical perspective of the national reality.
This situation is not new, going back to the conflictive and fertile years of the 1980s, when diverse groups and experiences that were then just emerging—such as Volumen 1, Hexágono, 4 x 4, Arte Calle, Puré, Grupo provisional and projects like Pilón, Castillo de la Fuerza and El Objeto esculturado—marked a critical agenda whose effects lasted till at least the first half of the 1990s with the exhibition Las metáforas del templo (1993), the magazine Memorias de la postguerra (1993) and the creation of Espacio Aglutinador (1994), among others.
The curator and art critic Gerardo Mosquera describes this panorama in the following way: “The most important transformation brought by new Cuban art, which arose on the island at the end of the 1970s, was to direct culture towards social and political criticism…From the middle of the 80s there was an extraordinary occurance in that fine art—without ceasing to be what it is—substituted the very functions of assemblies and the (totally controlled) mass media, converting itself into a space to express the problems of the people.”
The so-called “Special Period in Time of Peace” (1991-1997) reordered the priorities of a country that needed to focus its efforts on survival, until the alliance with the Bolivarian government of Venezuela at the end of the 1990s and the approaches of the United States government in 2014 softened the situation and forced a controlled opening with regard to economic issues, which consequently had their effect on the rigid political culture of Cuba. This allowed the creation of commercial galleries and the resulting development of sales and acquisitions of Cuban art, always under the guardianship of the State.
As this was happening, the interests of art and of artists in Cuba were being displaced, implying a redefinition of the way of addressing the political, now marked with the imprint of the market and the “correct” assimilation of “glocalism.” In fact, Antonio José Ponte—writer and vice-director of the newspaper Diario de Cuba—has warned of “The appearance of a new class of artists in Cuban culture, residing within or beyond the country… who behave as if they’d extracted no lesson of liberty from these advantages” and “who help to configure a relationship with political power quite similar to that which a regimen like that of Vladimir Putin sustains with the art world.”
II. Dissonance and Dissidence
Emblematic of the climate of vigilance and suspicion on the island is Detector de ideologías (1989) by Lázaro Saavedra (Havana, 1964), an artifact of artisan manufacture—it reads “Caribbean” and “Made in Cuba”— that alludes to doctrinarian control. The needles of the unusual apparatus register a range of behaviors, typified as “no problem,” “problematic,” “counterrevolutionary (conscious or unconscious)” and “diversionism.”
The sentence that has ruled Cuban political culture—“All for the revolution, nothing against the revolution”—demarcates political limits the government has managed with discretion, according to circumstance. In the sinuous line that separates what’s permissible from what’s punishable, sometimes critical outbursts are tolerated to exemplify the official magnanimity, and sometimes they are not. As the philosopher and essayist Rafael Rojas explains, “phenomena such as Kcho, Carlos Garaicoa, Los Carpinteros and Tania Bruguera, at the margin of their aesthetic and political differences, share a circulatory structure of critical Cuban art in the post-Soviet world, which obligates the State to compromise or censor, to co-opt or repress."
From there, the scandals derived from censure, prohibition and sanctions have been frequent. There was the premature closing, in 1988, of the exhibition A tarro partido II by Tomás Esson, whose proposal was considered inappropriate by Cuban authorities because of the orgiastic connotations of some of the works and irreverent use of revolutionary iconography. In 1989 the artists Tanya Angulo, Juan Pablo Ballester, José Ángel Toirac and Ileana Villalón decided to suspend their exhibition Homenaje a Hans Haacke, within the framework of the project Castillo de la Fuerza, as they did not accept a series of demands from the president of the Consejo Nacional de las Artes Plásticas, who had requested that some works be excluded from the show. In 1990 the artist Ángel Delgado was jailed after a performance in which he defecated in a kind of latrine improvised out of the Gramma newspaper, which happened at the opening of the exhibition El objeto esculturado. Another controversial episode was Tania Bruguera’s detention and prohibition from leaving the country when she tried to reissue her performance El susurro de Tatlin # 6 (2009), but this time via a multitudinous open call at the emblematic Plaza de la Revolución scheduled for December 30, 2014, during the days in which Barack Obama and Raúl Castro were promoting the reopening of relations between the United States and Cuba.
During its moments of greatest tension, Cuban fine art configured tactics of covert resistance and camouflaged critique that spurred the conception of exhibitions such as Es sólo lo que ves (1988), in which abstraction worked like an evasive maneuver, and the event La plástica joven se dedica al Baseball (1989) with the intention of “displacing the ‘conflict’ from cultural institutions to a difficult-to-censor terrain.”
Since the 1980s art in Cuba has been debated between the critical position facing the directives of political power and the implementation of an agenda dominated by the politics of art and its rituals. In any of those orientations, the acts of the intellectual sector have been subject to the suspicious gaze of Cuban authorities. This means that the pretense of critical perfection of the political system has been just as problematic as the aspiration to a kind of autonomous action, beyond the ideological factor.
Strictly speaking, art in Fidel’s Cuba has never been explicitly “against the revolution,” but rather has unmasked the manifest contradictions between the ideological model and reality. It has questioned the bureaucracy, the cult of personality, the flattening of individual expectations, the rigidity of partisanship, but not the foundations of the prevailing political system. In this sense, as Cuban curator, historian and essayist Iván de la Nuez mentions in an interview, there has been more “dissonance” than “dissidence.”
III. Poetics and Politics: A Tautological Exercise?
To propose an approximation to the link between the visual arts and politics in Cuba during these two decades of the 21st century is an almost tautological exercise. Art continues to form part of the Cuban political agenda, impelled by the need to sustain the humanist varnish promoted by the revolution since 1959, and politics has remained one of the favorite topics of the insular art that has found in it a distinctive nuance. Given this, both programs cross paths and occasionally complement each other. Nevertheless, it’s certain that in the new millennium the concatenation of both practices presents different nuances, in the measure that the circumstances of life on the island have changed noticeably, in domestic matters just as much as in foreign relations.
It’s not possible to undertake the analysis of such a complex subject in a brief space, for which reason in this text I have limited myself to review only a few noteworthy aspects of the intersection of visual arts and the political in Cuba in the new millennium, underlining the current proposals or situations related to the theme.
The Faro tumbado (2006) by Los Carpinteros (Marco Castillo, 1971 / Dagoberto Rodríguez, 1969), offers another critical look at the vertical nature of power in Cuba and its ideological failure. The symbolic fall of the colossus of Havana, considered for many years to be the illuminated watchtower of the revolutionary project, now rests on the floor like a useless relic. The performance of the Conga irreversible (2012), realized during the 11th Havana Biennial which combined insular populism and creole folklore, recalls the sustained retrogression of the revolutionary promises.
The controversial Vaso de agua medio lleno (2006) presented at the Feria Arco (Madrid, 2015) by Wilfredo Prieto (Sancti Spiritus, 1978), has served as a critical detonator, equally for the interior of the field of art and its commercial evaluation as for its political reading as an example of the ambiguous probability that the mutual rapprochement of Cuba and United States that happened in 2015 could bear fruit.
The series Lección de diplomacia (2014-2015) by Yoan Capote (Pinar del Río, 1977) points toward the protocols of bilateral negotiation, condemned from the beginning to fail as soon as parties settle into positions of strength. One of the works is composed of two carved mahogany chairs and linen, one beside the other, with noses in the middle of each. Another piece, subtitled “mesa de acuerdos” (negotiating table) is composed of a table with a marble top in the center of which is an electric saw.
Una nación en pocas palabras (2015-2016) Jesús Hdez-Güero (Havana, 1983) intervenes a copy of the last printed edition of the Cuban constitution, deleting the text and leaving only the punctuation, as if it were an archipelago of periods, commas and spaces in the emptiness.
Registro estético de las fuerzas encubiertas (2017) by Francisco Masó (La Habana, 1988) paradoxically combines abstraction and concealment, laying bare the patterns of dress of the covert forces of the regime in a series of paintings in which Masó reproduces the colors of the shirts worn by “uniformed civilians” who repressed civic protests in Cuba.
In Cuban visual arts during the last decades, poetics and politics have maintained a permanent dialog that is simultaneously oriented toward the interior of the field of art and toward the public realm (whether local or foreign), via the critical revision and disassembling of the symbols and strategies of power. Under this program a series of creative practices are collected, whose meaning and purpose are located between the myth of an ideal society and the flagrant incongruence of what’s real.
 Gerardo Mosquera. Arte y cultura crítica en Cuba (1999). In: El nuevo arte cubano. Antología de textos críticos. Editors: Magaly Espinoza and Kevin Power. Spain, 2006. p. 195
 In: La utopía y el adiós. Hipermedia Magazine, 2017. https://hypermediamagazine.com/2017/04/19/rafael-rojas-la-utopia-y-el-adios/
 Tamara Díaz Bringas. In: http://www.srcorchea.com/srcorchea/2017/3/15/nueve-entradas-en-1989