Saturday, February 9, 2008

Cuba Art: How the Revolution Broke It In and Harnessed It

It's called "Deconstruction" and it really is a choice specimen of it. RSNLK is even better at it than Henry used to be before the prospect of a McCain presidency unhinged his febrile mind and turned him into Robespierre. In a few well-crafted sentences dripping with purest satire, RSNLK dissects with laser-like precision the turgid agitprop of the art critic of the august Barre Montpelier Argus Times. Jim Lowe, who is obviously destined for bigger and better things — because, of course, from the Argus Times one may hope to rise but need never fear descending lower — reviews with all the pretentiousness he can summon and whatever notes he took at college, in "¡Viva la Revolución!," 101, 201 and 301, "¡Cuba: Art and History from 1868 to Today," an exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

This is the first art exhibit, in my recollection, which combines art with history; not history as an aid in placing the paintings in their historical context, but "History" as a co-equal motif which validates the art and ultimately subordinates it to its own purposes. Of course, "history" is used as a euphemism here; it is not "history" that the Cuban and Canadian curators mean, but, rather, history as propaganda. The paintings, arranged as they are into five historical periods, are intended to show not only artistic but political evolution, and fail miserably in that respect, of course, because although there has been evolution it has been in the other direction. The apex of Cuban art was precisely in the last two decades of the Republic (1938-1958), which coincides, also, with the most progressive and prosperous period in Cuban history. This is no less true for Cuban literature than for Cuban art or music. Indeed, it would be impossible to point to any field of creative human endeavour which was not affected negatively by the Cuban Revolution.

Why 1868 as the beginning of Cuban art? Cuban art was not born with the Ten Years' War (1868-78) for Cuban Independence. Revolutions do affect art, sometimes for the better (1868) and sometimes for the worse (1959). They can carry in their wake the seeds of a national art, as was the case with the French Revolution (the only good thing it produced); or, as in the case of Naziism and Bolshevism, revolutions can hinder and eventually stop the evolution of national art or replace it with national kitsch, as in Cuba.

There is a tendentious but easily transparent theme that runs through this entire exhibition. It is to depict pre-revolutionary Cuba as a squalid and dangerous place. It achieves this effect by relying on social realism, which always prefers the squalid over the beautiful and the ignoble over the noble, at least when depicting capitalist societies. It performs the reverse service when portraying the "glories" of Communism. It is that very duality which betrays its agenda and renders its social commentary worthless. An exhibit on U.S. history which relied principally on works of social realism to depict the evolution of American democracy would foreshadow the destruction of not only capitalism but the Republic itself. Cuba was destroyed but by the heroes of social realism, whose fanciful depictions of a hellish pre-Castro Cuba are now used to justify that destruction.

Eskil Lam, son of Wilfredo Lam, esteemed by many to be Cuba's greatest painter, refused to contribute any of his father's works in his possession to this exhibit, and, in an interview in The New York Times, even implied that his father would not have approved of the later stages of the Cuban Revolution because he was a "humanist" (but not enough of one to have ever denounced it). Wilfredo Lam was of Chinese-African heritage, studied to be a lawyer but opted to become a painter instead. Pre-revolutionary Cuban society, which was more colorblind than any that ever existed in the Western Hemisphere and the opposite in that respect to Castro's racially-polarized revolutionary "paradise," produced Lams, Carpentiers, Whites and even Batistas (for politics is an art, too) with such naturalness and regularity that no one ever thought to hold them up as "tokens" because they were the mainstream. In contrast, in nearly 50 years, the Castro regime has produced no writer or artist of note except those it "trained" in prisons and concentration camps.


Also read the comments by Ray and Alberto Cruz:

1 comment:

Vana said...

How dare the revolution try to portray pre revolutionary Cuba as shabby or decrepit, one only needs to look around now to see how everything is falling down, and the shanty towns our people live in, it's disgusting how the revolution tries to hide the sun with one finger.