Rachel Weiss


On her book To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art

Cover Interview of July 03, 2011


The “new Cuban art” was notable not only for the nature of its objects, actions, and debates, but also for the energies that it collected around itself.

The linkage of art to revolutionary politics is a key aspect of Latin American modernity.  One of the singular accomplishments of the new Cuban art has been its capacity to generate mobility around not only the explicitly political situation, but also the quotidian realities of Cuban society.

On the one hand, this history speaks forcefully to the fundamental question of art and artists’ agency; on the other it provides some tentative answers to the existential challenges of disenchantment. What happened in Cuba gives us an acute sense of what it can mean, both for individuals and for societies, when we engage in that most contemporary of dilemmas—heading both to and from utopia.

The movement was an extraordinary phenomenon, erupting in the midst of a claustrophobic and oppressive cultural climate. The 1970s, a period known as the “grey” years, was the proximate referent for the movement, with its sovietization of culture and consolidation of political power and control.

But the new Cuban art 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.

Hailed in its earliest moments for its “sense of joy and human affirmation” and its “acceleration of imaginative reach,” the new Cuban art almost completely redefined the possibilities for a work of art on the island. Emotionally, as the critic Gerardo Mosquera commented at the time, “the response [was] a sensation of possibility.”

The 1990s brought a near-total collapse of the nation’s viability, both economic and psychic: precipitous drops in food and basic goods, transportation, electricity, hope.

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, and anger, to name some of the most important), artists once again voiced the complicated realities of the nation, trading the fiery, utopian energies of the “Generation of the 80s” for the darker question that had become central: How, after building the sky, does a people learn to live with disenchantment?

The artists were all born after the Revolution of 1959, and were authentic products of it. They insisted on an art that was free from ideological coercion, expressive of the complex cultural heritages of the island, and connected to contemporary practice elsewhere in the world.  Above all, they insisted on an art that was truly revolutionary, in its ethical foundation and independence of thought.

Their work became a root space of struggle and humor, an aggressive, caustic, bulls-eye art. As it accelerated into a critical movement, the work spilled out of studios, classrooms and galleries into the streets, magnetizing a large and diverse following by raising the taboo subjects of corruption, dogmatism, cult of personality, lack of democracy, and so on.

In the space of just a few years, visual art became the primary interlocutor of Cuban society, surely one of the most vertiginous intervals in the history of art anywhere.

© 2011 Rachel Weiss