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You can’t turn on United States news or look at a Republican senator’s twitter feed these days without someone banging on about why this or that policy proposal to make people’s lives a little less miserable is a one-way ticket directly to Cuba. We are to understand that life in Cuba is unceasing suffering bereft even of several television channels, and the cause of its woes is socialism itself, and not, say, either the US embargo or the 466 years of nonstop plunder and violence that preceded it. When elites suddenly feel a burning need to convince Americans that socialism is bad, actually, exhibit “A” is Cuba.
With Cuba, as with probably everything, beware facile binaries. Is Cuban socialism a success or failure? Is Cuba frozen in time or on the verge of being overrun with McDonald’s? Are things getting better or worse? The answer is both and neither; it’s complicated. Cubans, like US Americans, have things that they would like to change about their country. Cubans, like US Americans, do not mostly think about those changes in terms of wholesale replacement of the entire political and economic system. Cubans, like US Americans (like most people in the whole entire world) may not articulate their grievances in terms preferred by foreigners. They do not fit tidily into pat narratives launched from the comfort of a Midtown Manhattan broadcast studio about either a totalitarian penal colony masquerading as a nation or a socialist paradise.
One field that displays the complexity and contradictions of Cuba is the arts. Across artistic disciplines, Cuba has a rich artistic tradition, outsized in sophistication and significance for a country of its size and economic poverty. Cuban arts are defined by censorship and freedom, by mass sustained state support and also scarcity and deprivation. Cuban art does not even bother to resolve these apparent contradictions. It coexists with them.
In Cuban neighborhoods are centers called casas de cultura, where residents take art, music and dance classes for basically free. Pianist and bandleader Roberto Carcasses told me that around third grade, children audition to begin formal music school training. At age eight begins the “long career” training for students specializing in piano, violin, or cello. At age 11 begins the “short career” of other instruments like guitar, trumpet, percussion, and clarinet. Every music student learns piano as well as their main instrument.
In the US, serious music or dance instruction is available mainly to parents who can afford to pay for private teachers, and have the flexibility to squire kids around to lessons. In the US, dance classes for kids are typically an hour a week. The main function of these classes, as far as I can tell, is to teach children that a life in the arts is not for them. Cuban dance students normally take classes five, six, 10 hours a week. Drummer Ruy Adrian Lopez-Nussa told me he practiced five hours a day as a teenager. Cultivation of that kind of rigor and discipline in children would be seen as child abuse in the United States, not remotely consistent with the latest nurturing parent bestsellers.
American fine art colleges are obscenely expensive, leaving students who don’t come from money with debt and financial precarity for life should they want to be artists, or urge students to pivot into graphic design, advertising, and user experience. The US erects a class barrier to participation in art, with predictable results about who gets to be an artist and what kinds of stories are told in mainstream institutions. This is a barrier that does not exist in Cuba.
Children from all walks of life can earn their way through hard work and talent into top art, dance, and music schools in Cuba, through university, for free.
Every working Cuban artist must maintain an affiliation with a state-recognized arts organization, which provides health care and pensions. Because the Cuban economy is so dire, “even scientists have to wait in line for chicken,” as Cuban science fiction writer Yoss (who is publicly known only under this pen name) said to me. When no career leads to affluence, it is not financially irresponsible to become an artist as it is imagined to be in this country. Doctors and painters are equally well or bad off. Cubans live in a world free of both college debt and sufficient, easily accessible calories.
Because there is mass government support for the arts, there is mass participation in the arts. Many concerts and museums have high tickets for foreigners and cheap tickets for Cuban residents. As a result, the national ballet in the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso is a world-class ballet company that performs in a glorious, restored Baroque Revival theater. While American ballet is a highbrow activity, a broad range of Cubans can afford to watch the ballet if they line up around the block for tickets — which they do for almost everything.
Not that Cuba is an artistic paradise. Recent years saw heated struggle over Decree 349, criticized as censorship even by arena-packing stars like nuevo trova crooner Silvio Rodriguez. In the public debate over Decree 349, artists were harassed and detained by police. Some artists I met had police suddenly start visiting the homes of family members after speaking against the decree, a form of unmistakable but untraceable “soft” intimidation. More recently, the San Isidro Movement has held hunger strikes and negotiations directly with the government over free expression.
I was detained once by police for walking down the street in Havana with a digital voice recorder talking to myself about comedy. It took me a few hours to convince police that a “left-wing American comedian and podcaster” is a thing that exists in my country and is not the same as “CIA operative.”
A painter called Rigoberto Almaguer told me that while Soviet Bloc artists embraced socialist realism — art as propaganda — Cuban artists never did. He winked, “we see our role as to keep the censors busy.” The sci-fi writer Yoss told me there is an unending tug-of-war in Cuba between the artists and the censors, but that both depend on the tug-of-war.
Cuba has comedy, but not like John Oliver, or, less famously, me, directly skewering politicians for their policies. Cubans describe their humor as comedia de la miseria, in which humor about daily hassles is understood by the audience as social critique. When an American comedian complains about stale bread, it’s harmless observational comedy. When a Cuban comedian complains about stale bread, as I saw at a sold-out show at the 5000-seat Karl Marx Theater, because the government monopolizes bread distribution, everyone is laughing at the government.
Contradictions perplex US Americans. We want to explain them away or choose a side or resolve them or declare it hypocrisy. In Cuba, the artistic frisson comes from learning to live with them.
Every utopia is a social experiment, the artist suggests in this commission for the Performa performance art biennial, and we’re ultimately the guinea pigs.
“You can’t live in a house that’s built upon your back.” This is one of the more memorable phrases spoken by the scripted lovers of Tschabalala Self’s Sounding Board, what Performa describes in its promotional materials as an “experimental play.” That phrase, uttered by one romantic partner to the other, operates as guidance, warning, dictate,…
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