“The new Cuban art grew up in the supercharged and conflicting currents of revolution, sometimes tracking to its optimism and at others scalded by it,” writes Rachel Weiss in the introduction to her book To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), published here as context for the exhibition Adiós Utopia. For more on Weiss’s book and the importance of utopia as a lens for understanding contemporary Cuban art, look for a conversation between Weiss and the Walker’s Olga Viso, a museum consultant on the exhibition, next week at Walker Reader.
The Museum of the Revolution, occupying what was formerly Fulgencio Batista’s presidential palace, incarnates the process at the heart of Cuba’s history. Celia Sánchez, longtime companion to Fidel Castro and the first woman to take up arms in the guerrilla struggle, was instrumental in founding the museum. Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother and head of the country’s armed forces since the beginning, established it by military decree on December 12, 1959: the museum was therefore one of the first institutions established after the revolutionary triumph. What one notices about the museum is that it holds the epic and the abject in continual oscillation: it is a museum of bits and tatters that lie alongside the armaments and campaign maps, an odd and poignant crescendo of history and sentiments. It is, in this sense, a relic of another time, when the Revolution itself was felt on such intimate terms.
The Museum of the Revolution’s dirge recalls earlier sacred pauperizations. Like all relics the objects are authoritative by virtue of touch—owned, worn, washed, torn, bled, or cried onto, died in—not entirely immune to the aura of kitsch that the enshrinement of bodily fluids, the consecration in blood, can confer. The most intimate residues of lives, like the oily wisps on the Shroud of Turin, the physical remains of an increasingly evanescent and remote subject. The Museum of the Revolution, abundant repository of traces of the absolute, celebrates immediate contact with it like in a Mass, exempt from the distance of symbolism or mediation. A system of “marvelous symbol-mirages,” to use Hermann Broch’s phrase, “bound in a magical unity by the heavenly—earthly, infinite—finite symbol of the Eucharist.” This kind of immediate relation, it must be noted, inherently claims a moral dimension.
The museum’s narrative charts Cuba’s long struggle for independence. It is a story full of tragedies and reversals, its text of utopian journey signaled by the meager yacht Granma, vessel of the 1956 revolutionary embarkation, enclosed in a glass pavilion on the museum grounds. Of course, the fact of the pants is no accident (to be fair, there are three dresses—one of them bloody), and one pair even belonged to Fidel himself (“Trousers worn by Commander in Chief Fidel Castro”). The museum used to come to a close with the displays celebrating the Revolution’s accomplishments, but in recent years more galleries have been added that chronicle the continuing battle: a suite of rooms addresses the tribulations of the “Special Period” of the early 1990s, and, following the 1997 return of the remains of Che Guevara to Cuba, a gallery devoted to his memory has been installed. Here we find locks of the martyr’s hair and beard, scraps of the clothes he died in, the stretcher he was transported on from La Higuera to Valle Grande (where his body was publicly displayed and photographed), and some of the instruments used to perform his autopsy. Also displayed are the diminutive coffins used to transfer Guevara’s remains from Bolivia to Cuba, along with those of his compatriots, and a nocturnal, funereal videotape of the ceremonies upon his arrival. Guevara, along with his co-commander Camilo Cienfuegos, is the subject of a large and startling “sculptural ensemble in hyperrealist style” about midway through the museum’s displays, but it is with his return to Cuba (his resurrection), forty years after his death, that the museum’s récit ends.
The museum oscillates. It is archetypal, sacramental, auratic, and banal. It oscillates between history and theology, the one constituted through narrative straightening and the other by way of fierce illogic. It oscillates, and that is mnemonic in effect: the rhythmic reiterations, the concentration and endurance reverberate and drill until they are internalized. The museum’s overall meter is intervalic, suspended, anticipatory: the Museum of the Revolution is a poem of loss as much as of triumph, in which the broken bodies and frustrated dreams are a Greek chorus, the voice that keeps returning. The museum is a discourse of the Revolution in the strongest sense of the term, with all of the specificity to location, context, and history that it implies, tracking the nation as asymptote. A magical function, numen and tremendum, baptism against the slaughterhouse. The museum’s display contends with a past that is at once too palpably present to yield entirely to myth, but that is also too broken to persist in myth’s absence. The (Museum of the) Revolution is a miniature, a diorama, a domestication: an act of faith, written across the everyday.
The Cuban Revolution dreamed, aspired, and dared, but it was also full of contradictions. Visions of justice and human fulfillment, of realizing, at last, a historic destiny, the audacity to proceed on its own terms, on the one hand; the inevitable gaps between a revolution of ideals and its regime of controls, on the other. “Within the Revolution, everything: Against the Revolution, nothing,” Fidel Castro had famously proclaimed in his 1961 Words to the Intellectuals, setting the terms for both an expansive cultural mandate and concern about how and by whom the borders of “inside” and “against” would be determined. Ten years later, the polysemous gesture of that dictum gave way to one declaring art a “weapon of the Revolution,” and by the time a national constitution was finalized in 1976, “form” had been definitively split from “content,” the better to hold the latter in thrall: this mirrored a split between political and cultural avant-gardes, and an increasingly contentious relation between them.
The new Cuban art is generally understood to have begun—at least publicly—with the 1981 exhibition Volumen Uno. That exhibition and the sense of the event were in relation, reaction, and contrast to many things. Among the most important were the increasingly oppressive sovietization of culture on the island, the consolidation of political power and control, and the anathematizing of culture and especially of its critical vocation by the Cuban leadership. The 1970s, which began with a miserable process of silencing politely referred to subsequently as the Quinquenio Gris (Five Gray Years), was the proximate referent for the new Cuban art: generally dated between 1971 and 1976, both the length and hue of this interval could well be put more starkly (the writer Pablo Armando Fernandez has applied the color to the entire decade, and later on the critic Osvaldo Sanchez shifted it from gray to black).
In this sense the new Cuban art was a reaction to the prescriptions and proscriptions of official culture. But it was also, crucially, the dynamic entry of a group of young people, born around the time of the Revolution and formed not only by its encroaching orthodoxies but also by its poetic idealism and dedication to independence. For that matter, the new Cuban art has also been a mark of the continuity of Cuban cultural traditions—in particular those of the 1920s and 1930s vanguards (that shared with Volumen Uno, for instance, a certain relation of simultaneous apartness from and commitment to the political arena). It also recalled the 1960s cultural efflorescence and even the 1970s, when a role of “critical participation” in the revolutionary project was developed, and from an array of political positions, in the face of what one critic has called the “relative monologism dominant for years.”
It would be simplest, and it might even give rise to a more dramatic narrative, to sketch the contours of culture during the revolutionary period as alternating bands of darkness and light: initial revolutionary enthusiasm and charisma, ensuing corrosion and calcification, hydraulic eruption in reaction, self-occlusion… This pattern, and its segments, could be attributed to the factors intrinsic to Cuba and its cultural life and also to outside forces that have significantly affected the island, including the relentless hostility and aggression from the United States, the quasi-colonial impositions of the USSR, and the collapse of the leftist project in Latin America (for the moment, anyhow), to name only the most obvious. But the unitary nature of such darknesses and lights is mostly an illusion, and nowhere is this clearer than in the country’s culture, which has always boiled with conflicting and cosanguinating tendencies. There was never a hegemonic institutional landscape, or a sole artistic proposal in the face of it. The new Cuban art squeezed through the many cracks between the various positions and factions with its own offering of desires, intentions, and approaches. Among other things, it has been an act against the institutionalized forgetting of inconvenient traditions and legacies that plagues all cultural processes, and especially those of a small, perennially beset island.
The new Cuban art has been notable not only for the nature of its objects but also for the energies that it has collected around itself and the energies that it has lent, in various moments, to sectors and questions that are “extra-artistic” in nature. The linkage of art with revolutionary politics is a key aspect of Latin American modernity, but a singular accomplishment of the new Cuban art has been its ability to generate mobility around not only the explicitly political situation but also the more daily and ordinary realities of the island.
But the new Cuban art was not a “movement” per se. It never had a manifesto. It was spontaneous in its eruption, more a phenomenon than anything else. It became consolidated on various levels—first among and by the artists themselves and by certain critics, until it fused as a recognizable entity. Eventually, and as a result of a complicated combination of factors (ideological challenge of the work and ideological crisis of Cuban and European socialism, economic opportunity afforded by art commerce and economic crisis of the nation, emigration of most of the “problematic” artists, maturation of others amid an effective erasure of the past, intense challenge and struggle at every juncture on the quotidian level, preoccupation with immediate and individual survival, exhaustion, disillusionment, cynicism, opportunism, anger…), Cuban art metamorphosed into something different, though apparently similar, solving or surpassing some of its traditional problems and reinstating others with renewed vengeance. But I want to insist that there is not a single, clean line of development: neither from utopianism to cynicism nor from naive optimism to pragmatism, much less from fantasy to reality. The new Cuban art is not a palindrome, falling symmetrically to either side of a catastrophic fold.
The new Cuban art grew up in the supercharged and conflicting currents of revolution, sometimes tracking to its optimism and at others scalded by it. But even more than that it was an art with extraordinary relation and relevance to the life of the country across social, domestic, cultural, and psychological registers: aggressive, protean, and perennially restless within an extraordinary conviction about the possibilities of art.