May you live in interesting times.
Politics has been a monster formalized as such centuries ago by Thomas Hobbes, and redeemed as such by almost all later thinkers that wrote about it. However, aversion to its fruits, and confusion about its nature keep it as a kind of dark and hostile figure that, from inside a closet, threatens our peers—and also our superiors—every time they lie down to sleep.
It is easy to understand, then, why we keep wanting to run away from it.
In Cuba, political art was for almost three decades the domain and property of the winning power, which otherwise functioned more randomly than intentionally (the decisions of the Party congresses never got further than the empty discourse of the MININT’s plastic arts contests). It is the generation of artists of the eighties that begins to slowly strip that power of its control over creation and, therefore, of its influence and persuasion over society.
It is obvious that the world has changed after 2020. The rearrangement of the formulas that order it means that the subjects that used to shape it have been restricted from acting upon it. As happens with events of great impact, it is impossible for the mere mortal to glimpse their effects and the deepest products of their reconstitutions; however, on the Island these were the catalyst for the emergence of what Jacques Rancière places at the center of politics: the action of supplementary subjects who at the same time contain the surplus value for society. In other words, additional, singular subjects, but authorized singularities. Politics is thus a miracle; the invariable is power.
As never before in the post-revolutionary period, individuals appeared during the last five years who contained in themselves fundamental traits for the execution of this nearly impracticable role. Subjects that have been more than visible, subjects that are mediatic. This, together with the recent exportation of Cubans outside the national borders, implies the translation of traits—and pressures-powers—usually reserved for a foreign spectator, to our new members within the international community.
Honestly, the word transnational doesn’t sound so absurd.
Everybody liked parties; everybody liked freedom, the appearance of it, at least. The reappropriation and overlapping operations carried out by the institution in the so-called art world, especially after the “change of direction” taken by the Cuban government in 2007, may not have fooled everyone, but they fooled most of them. Names, projects, concepts that were previously banned returned to the official discourse with brazen ease in those years. That new independent art, the space that has since then given refuge to the emergence of consecrated names from the generations of the 1990s and 2000s, stands on the shoulders of specific disruptive subjects who take upon themselves, consciously or not, the task of showing the rules of the circumstances. Well-known names, such as Ángel Delgado, or Sandra Ceballos and Ezequiel Suárez, and others, sometimes invisibilized without too much of a problem, are those who received the bullets for independence.
Copy-paste, twenty years later
Last Thursday, January 5—sixty-something year of the Revolution—, the first private exhibition of the new post-11J era opened in the new studio-apartment of artist Ezequiel O. Suarez—designed by him and Kevin Ávila—with an equally new public, which is coincidentally almost the same as the public of the rest of the other art. But here we have always been the same handful of people, so nothing new there.
For two years the visual arts movement in the capital had remained in a turbulent recession whose circumstances were aggravated during the pandemic. Independent art, whose independent status had already been sufficiently disputed by the intelligentsia of the guild (I’m thinking of the panel discussion organized by Rialta and the Artista x Artista project at the end of 2019), emerged weakened from this period notwithstanding having managed to create a state of affairs in the creative field only comparable to that achieved by the generation of the eighties.
Now, when what Lisset Monzón calls “new market situation” has completely sedimented, the return to the scene has drawn a parable around the red dinosaur in the room. The exhibition Ok, lamentable / Ok, lame, instead, crashes against it.
Private Art. Ok, Lame…
With an eye-catching roster if ever there was one, but above all because of the particular conjunction of these artists, which includes members of old and indefatigable guard like Armando Fernández†, Tomás Esson, Arturo Cuenca† and Ernesto Leal, and younger members like Kevin Ávila himself, Carla María Bellido and Alejandro Ulloa, Ok, lamentable / Ok, lame is the return to the ring of the once independent art, there proclaimed private art.
This reaction declares the subtle watershed that inaugurates another way of being in Cuban contemporary art. Private art, not only as the consecration of a widely practiced mode of participation—though not equally sentenced in all the majesty of Cuban law—, but also as the entrenched reaction of a subject once again denied, however, valuably insistent.
There are a little more than 20 state-run galleries in Havana, more than a hundred private studios/galleries—with dissimilar levels of interest—and a whole project of duplication of alternative spaces in Old Havana, which again tries to disguise the police tonfa that sustains it, and which has been quite successful in doing so. There are also related spaces, let’s say of friends, that welcome curatorial projects belonging to any space of the cultural repertoire of the city, and they do it without particular fears.
The first option has been taken off the table. In addition to the breaking-off of a good part of the artists with the institution (which is nothing more than the State), its spaces suffer for the time being from the same senility that affects the rest of the country.
The second option is simply impractical. The rapid emergence of independent exhibition spaces as of 2014 was subject to Cuba’s pre-existing real estate and architectural conditions. Even projects with more access to funds, far from creating completely new spaces, took advantage of the capacities of some, until then, completely forgotten ones. This, in most cases, meant the loss of certain exhibition standards, so that, of the hundred or so studios opened in that period, only a few can function as galleries; the rest can only practice onanism.
The effects of this new situation are in the past, because as independent art did before, this radicalized child of the circumstances attacks the State right where it hurts: where it does not reach.
A friend invited us to a family reunion a few years ago. It was not very formal, but when we arrived the background music was Lecuona and Leo Brouwer, and several uncles were wearing corduroy jackets. I think one of them was Serrano. Anyway, wine consumption was a bit unrestrained. They ended up confining us to the porch, separated from the “grown-ups,” to prevent the shouting of us youngsters from bothering them. After an hour of partying they, the “older ones,” played a record of Los Van Van and began to spin around as if dancing and to spill their drinks on the floor. It was obvious that they were not even good at chachacha. One of the ladies, obviously annoyed, shouted at her husband: “Twenty years and you still haven’t learned how to dance casino!” To which he replies: “And you?! Ten years at the Round Table and you only talk garbage!” True story.
For some artists it is impossible to be static, they can’t stop “moving.” Their work demands much more than just creating art—this has been the case since the 1990s, when artists incorporated curatorial and distribution roles into their work—, they are now forced to create the conditions for their existence, and the justification for their relevance. This today can only happen in spaces far from hostility, and in a country where the state no longer even needs to materialize itself in order to restrict other people’s freedoms, that space is inside.
Political Art. Sorry, I’m Yellow
Certainly, the first task of politics, carried out by its sujet extraordinaire, is to achieve the manifestation of dissent, not its resolution. As painfully dialectical as the above sounds, and its seeming mediocrity, few operations are as effective at making something manifest as the operations of art.
Ok lamentable, an exhibition led entirely by artists, proposed as pièce de resistance a work of the same name that, although at the beginning was absent from the show, embodies the unveiling and judgment on the current image of our political dispute: two identical loudspeakers riposte each other’s pathetic discourse, face to face and without touching each other.
The piece is the culmination of a curatorial design where the crude has prevailed, the blow of immediate sense that the resources of conceptual art make possible better than any other. The strongest blows: Esto no es un film and La papa by Alejandro Ulloa, SCEUN, solos como en un naufragio, by Kevin Ávila, and the presence of Ezequiel in one of his exhibitions.
Alejandro is the nephew of someone relatively important; I say relatively because that someone is a troubadour. His life is stable and has a relatively useful purpose; I say relatively because so is enriched uranium. He is a quiet guy and almost always is by himself. He avoids groups, not because he doesn’t know how to fit in—he can be captivating for certain people, I say certain because there are those who learned to read in first grade—, but because, no matter how much he blabs, someone else always takes away his girl. Your only chance is to make yourself necessary enough so that they end up rewarding you with a car. It’s possible, it’s happened before. In the meantime, he hides to catch the bus.
The coryphaeus shouts sexual freedom. Aie! Equal
marriage. Aie! Environmentalism. Aie! Soccer World Cup. Aie! The potato
has arrived. Aie! Parole. Aie!
And you, aren’t you going to say anything? Sorry, I’m yellow.
 In his “Ten Theses on Politics” Rancière defines it as distinct from the exercise of power, as a specific modality of action “It has been a pleasure,” Arendt replies from beyond the grave.
 Of course, the Cuban post-totalitarian State has plenty of forces and ways to exercise control over the spheres in which it wishes to do so; however, both its survival and its further objectives require the “persuaded conformity” of the social group with respect to the cultural model it is willing to impose, but which for now it has preferred to propose.