The Farewell to Utopia in Revolutionary Cuban Art: An Interview with Rachel Weiss
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Sightlines

The Farewell to Utopia in Revolutionary Cuban Art

Los Carpinteros, Faro Tumbado (Felled Lighthouse), 2006, installed in Adiós Utopia. Photo: Dylan Nelson for Walker Art Center

“The Cuban Revolution dreamed, aspired, and dared, but it was also full of contradictions,” writes Rachel Weiss, author and professor of Arts Administration and Policy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in the introduction to To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). “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.” Navigating this apparent disjuncture is at the heart of the exhibition Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950In a follow-up to “To Build the Sky,” the introduction to Weiss’s 2010 book To and From Utopia‘s introduction with visitors to Walker Reader, I recently discussed this notion of utopia—promised, realized, lost—in Cuban history and art.

Olga Viso: The struggle for utopia has been a theme frequently employed to describe contemporary art in Cuba. Since the 1990s, noted Cuban art critics and curators including Gerardo Mosquera, Tonel, and you have found it a useful frame by which to give context to Cuba’s diverse artistic production, in particular a generation of artists who emerged after 1980. Why is utopia such an important lens by which to understand Cuban art of the last three decades?

Rachel Weiss: There are lots of ways that utopia has been thought about, but to me the most important sense of the term has to do with aspiration rather than model—that is, that “utopia” names something that never arrives, and is never meant to arrive, but stands as a horizon.

René Francisco Rodriguez and Eduardo Ponjuán’s Productivismo (1992), as installed in Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950. Photo: Dylan Nelson for Walker Art Center

Early on in my research about utopia for an earlier project, I ran across a text by the French leftist thinker Louis Marin, which he wrote not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and shortly before his death. He talks about utopia as a kind of “selvage,” a “limit” which functions both as a way and as a gap—a way, in the sense of providing passage between two defined territories, and a gap, as in a no-man’s land that exists in the space between two edges. This gap, he says— neither one edge nor the other—is a “neutral” space, the space of possibility. He imagines utopia both in terms of “the frontiers that define and limit utopia… and secondly, the frontiers that are created by the utopian imagination, if that imagination is indeed capable of such an act.” In that poignant text, utopia stands as a “horizon that closes a site and opens up a space.”1 So it was those ways of thinking about utopia that were at the core of my own thinking, later on.

Viso: What demarcates the line between “to” and “from” utopia in your book?  What historical events and forces mark this turning point?

Weiss: Initially, my idea was that there was indeed some kind of dividing line—that there was a period of artistic activity that was “utopian,” and that then there was a retreat from that, and that the former was laudable and the latter embodied disappointment and cynicism. But if you really look at what has happened, it’s more a matter—at least, in how I understand it—of living and working meaningfully in that space of disappointment. The way I described it back when I was finishing that book was like this: “to work back through the interminable labyrinth of losses, problems, distractions, and reactions, to work back to a clearer idea, a less-conflicted one: to fix a horizon. The quite possibly impossible task, of trying to—without illusions—avoid disillusionment.”2

In any case, it was not so much an idea of there being a moment or line that separated the two, but more a sense of a paradigm shift, a general feeling about life and possibility.

Tania Brugera’s Estadística (Statistics) (1995–2000) and Juan Francisco Elso’s Por América (José Martí), as installed in Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950. Photo: Dylan Nelson for Walker Art Center

Viso: Utopia was also the subject of Mari Carmen Ramirez’s seminal exhibition Inverted Utopias: The Avant-Garde Art of Latin America. This 2004 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston examined revolutionary struggles across Latin America and the Caribbean. It posited the emergence of Latin American modernism as a form of utopia that challenged European civilization and its artistic avant-garde. How has the struggle for utopia in Cuba differed from the struggles in other Latin American countries, especially as you move from the modernist to post-modernist periods?

Weiss: Well, I don’t really feel qualified to weigh in on such a broad range of artistic activity, but what I can say is that what drew me to the work in Cuba was the fluid exchange between the artists/works and the broader conversation—at lots of levels—about where the society was going, what the problems were, etc. That seemed extraordinary and exciting and hopeful to me.

Viso: How is the theme of utopia further developed and expanded upon in Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art?

Weiss: For the most part, there’s been a kind of firewall between the revolutionary and pre-revolutionary periods, in terms of looking at Cuban art. And I include myself in that description. But this show looks for connections that span across that line, and what was interesting for me in that was seeing threads of continuity. That opens up the works from the later period, and especially the works from the ’80s and ’90s, to richer cultural resonances than just being somehow in response or relation to the Revolution itself and its impacts on Cuban culture.

Eladio Rivadulla, Fidel Castro, 26 de Julio, 1959

Viso: You reference some key historical events in your text that may be less familiar to our readers, such as Fidel Castro’s infamous 1961 speech, “Words to the Intellectuals,” which laid out a clear albeit confusing framework for cultural policy in revolutionary Cuba. Castro proclaimed: “Within the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, nothing.” Would you talk about the significance of these words and how they shaped cultural policy in Cuba for the next 50 years?

Weiss: That dictum came in the wake of one of the early clashes between intellectuals and the political leadership over what kinds of cultural expression were allowable—the sanctioning of the film PM over its allegedly problematic approach to depicting Cuban life. The best analysis of its impact that I know of is from Desiderio Navarro, who catalogues some of the questions it raised that “never got a well-developed, clear and categorical answer” as follows:

Which events and processes of Cuban social and cultural reality form part of the revolution and which do not? How can one distinguish which cultural texts or practices act against the revolution? Which act for it? And which simply do not affect it? Which social criticism is revolutionary and which is counterrevolutionary? Who decides what is the correct answer to these questions? How and according to what criteria is this decision made? Does not going against the revolution imply silence on the social ills of the pre-revolutionary past that have survived or on the ills that have arisen due to erroneous political decisions and unresolved problems of the revolutionary period? Doesn’t being for the revolution imply publicly revealing, criticizing and fighting these social ills and errors? And so on.3

Viso: What was the Quinquenio Gris (Five Gray Years) and what did this moment, also known as the “Black Decade,” symbolize for artists working during Cuba’s period of “sovietization” in the late 1960s and early ’70s?

Weiss: Cuba underwent a process of consolidation and institutionalization in the 1970s, much of it along soviet lines; that replaced the radical experimentation of the previous years, with direct ramifications for culture. The 1971 Congress on Education and Culture set out parameters for an art that was to be “a weapon of the struggle,” a dictum that reigned during the so-called quinquenio gris and which remains a traumatic scar on the country’s cultural legacy. The decade began with a torrent of official exhibitions and competitions mostly characterized by patently ideological and/or patriotic themes and largely filled with an obligatory kind of aesthetic acquiescence heavy with the return of the sentimental pastorals of early Cuban modernism, of the “peasant as the nation.” Artistic “expression’ outside of the given parameters was anathematized as counter-revolutionary and problematic in a variety of other ways, and the lives of many artists and intellectuals were irreparably damaged by the blacklisting and the repression of their work that ensued.

Installation view of Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950, with Ernesto Oroza’s Aachen to Zurich (2005), an animation which spells out the word “revolution” in 200 typefaces. Photo: Dylan Nelson for Walker Art Center

Viso: August Nimtz, a University of Minnesota professor and coordinator of the Minnesota Cuba Committee, points out that the process of “sovietization” in Cuba took on a different character than in the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. A style of Socialist Realism was, for example, never mandated in Cuba. Nimtz asks, “What was peculiar about Cuba that allowed for a flowering of the arts unencumbered for the most part by the stultifying hand of Stalinism?”

Weiss: Again, a complicated and big question. Briefly: I’d answer both in terms of Cuba’s cultural heritage from before 1959, and in terms of the nature of the revolutionary process there.

Cuban revolutionary cultural policy had been from the start an unusual amalgam of Third World-ist, anti-imperialist and decolonizing nativism, on one hand, and full membership in the club of European modernism on the other. Artistic production in the early years spanned abstract painting (a holdover from the Batista days, when it had signaled dissent), vivid and polemical silkscreen posters (for movies, and for international solidarity, in the two main lines of production), unreconstructed classical ballet and music, an itinerant system of cinemas mounted on trucks that toured the countryside, amateur (aficionado) workshops for folk painting and papier mâché, new “Houses of Culture” established throughout the island, art exhibitions installed in factories—a mixture that would confound any rigid ideological affiliation. It was both populist and elite, folkloric and urbane—heterodox, in other words, and unlike the more focused and aligned cultural policies of many other decolonizing states. There were historical reasons for this: throughout the 20th century the island’s cultural production had far outpaced the limited resources available and the isolation in which it grew, such that when revolution came, it left intact many of the “bourgeois” traditions that were not only in place but were a substantial marker of the people’s creative capacity and the nation’s maturity. This situation meant that the transition to a “revolutionary culture” started out on complicated and shifting ground, with no clear understandings or agreements about how that new culture would—or would not—depart from its predecessor.

That’s to address the first half of the question. As to the nature of the Cuban revolution, it was, from the start, a mostly indigenous process, not an offshoot or imposition of the soviet model. And, in fact, for a lot of people that distinction was fundamental to its meaning. So, although there were various and very real attempts to “sovietize’ Cuba, not only in terms of culture, there was always intense resistance to that, stemming from the revolution’s authentically Cuban rather than imported foundation.

Installation view of Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950, with Obras escogidas (Selected Works) (1995), by Alexis Leyva Machade (Kcho) in the foreground. Photo: Dylan Nelson for Walker Art Center

Viso: In principle, Nimtz and the Minnesota Cuba Committee challenge the characterization of the Cuban Revolution as a “utopian journey”? They argue that the word “utopia” never appears in the language of Cuba’s historic leadership. I suppose this challenge stems from an understanding of Marxist ideology that specifically discounts the program of social revolution as utopian. Gerardo Mosquera addresses this subject in his essay for Adios Utopia. How do you respond to this critique and to Mosquera’s retort that “utopia is disguised as science” in traditional Marxist ideology?

Weiss: The vision implicit in the Cuban revolutionary process was extraordinary: the wholesale reformulation of society, revolutionary individual subjectivities, and interpersonal relations, as well as the end to exploitation and alienation. Insofar as those visions have proven, at least so far, to be unattainable, but also in that they persist in our understanding of what a just society might look like, I think that “utopian” remains a useful (if painful) term here.

Viso: So if Castro never intended to create a social utopia in Cuba, to whose dystopia are Cubans bidding farewell today?

Weiss: I need to reframe the question a bit: whatever Castro may have intended, it’s my sense that for a great many people on the island, that’s exactly what people imagined themselves as working toward. And if you then look at where things stand today, there’s a tremendous amount to mourn.

Notes

1 Louis Marin, “The Frontiers of Utopia,” in Utopias and the Millennium, Krishan Kumar and Stephen Bann, eds. (London: Reaktion Books, 1993)

2 Ibid. 251.

3 “In medias res publicas: On Intellectuals and Social Criticism in the Cuban Public Sphere” [presented at the international conference “The Role Of The Intellectual In The Public Sphere,” organized by the Prince Claus fund, Beirut, February 24–25, 2000]; reprinted in Nepantla: Views from the South 2 [2001]: 356).

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