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The Putinization of Cuban Art


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In the December issue of e-flux journal, whose theme is "Cuba: The Fading of a Subcontinental Dream,” Antonio José Ponte reflects on this year’s 12th Havana Biennial and what it revealed about the relationship between prominent artists and government power in Cuba. The Cuban government is increasingly willing to open the island up to the international art market, provided that Cuban artists steer clear of political commentary. Here’s a snippet:

All these signs suggest the emergence of a new class of artists in Cuban culture. Those residents both inside and outside the country who enjoy sufficient economic solvency to not depend on the regime, who count on a second nationality to support them, still behave as if they have drawn no lessons on freedom from these very advantages. They defend their economic privileges above anything else … even (as we have seen in Padura’s case) over their own work.

They take their works of art to Cuba or publish their books there for the benefit of those people who can read and attend exhibitions, not to curry favor with the regime. That’s what they say, at least. But being unscrupulous soon makes them complicit with the authorities, and their silence ensures that censorship and repression will continue to operate smoothly. They are at once the stars and extras in art festivals that, ultimately, are always crushing someone.

By being ready to usher in the future, these artists are helping to form a relationship with political power that is not unlike Vladimir Putin’s regime in terms of the way it controls the world of Russian art. Unlike Putin, however, Raúl Castro does not need to shell out much in the way of money in order to buy artists. He uses the US market and its appetite for discovering all things Cuban. An entire fleet of American curators lands in Havana and—regardless of where they live or how well they’re doing—Cuban artists return to the island. It’s understood that Cuban art is what you buy on the island, in situ, paying for the value added by the spirit of the place. Cuban art is bought as a souvenir of a historical moment, and the regime takes its cut for providing the premises, which is their island. And from these transactions, the artists’ commitment to submissiveness follows.

Image of 12th Havana Biennial via Havana Times.