One of the things that becomes depressingly obvious as you begin reading Samuel Farber’s “Cuba since the Revolution of 1959: a critical assessment” is its refusal to acknowledge anything positive about the system. It is a methodology that he learned on the sectarian left and that has been reinforced by the particular brand of Sovietology/Cubanology he developed over decades in the academy. It is the approach of the District Attorney who is making the case against the defendant, footnotes included. I learned the sectarian way to do it through 11 years of membership in the SWP, all geared to making the “enemy” of the party some kind of guilty perp.
The methodology, of course, rests on the cherry-picking of the facts. If you are trying to make your case against Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, why undermine your case by finding something good to say about them? What Farber does not understand of course is that by refusing to engage with the positive aspects of Cuban socialism (for lack of a better term), he comes across as a cheap propagandist. Something of course that he is.
Today I spent several hours going through the first chapter of his book titled “Toward ‘Monolithic Unity’—building Cuban State Power from Above” that tries to make the case that Fidel Castro always had plans to create what Farber calls a “totalitarian” state, whether or not the U.S. had tried to overthrow the Cuban Revolution.
I will be dealing with this chapter in some detail in a subsequent post but would simply like to address one point here and now. Farber writes that “Cuban literature came closest to the model of Soviet socialist realism”, a sure sign that in the realm of art the Cuban state was as opposed to free expression as it was in the political realm. If that is the case, how does one explain Cuba’s sharp departure from Soviet norms in painting? Was Cuba putting a gun to artists’ heads to make sure that they did not stray from the all-important goal of representing peasants beaming over a sugar harvest, tractors and all? In reality, Cuban art was not quite like that at all.
From chapter three of “Abstract Expressionism: The International Context”
A Legacy for the Latin American Left: Abstract Expressionism as Anti-Imperialist Art
Abstract artists were strong when the Revolution took place, and they were supporting the Revolution; therefore there was no negative identification with abstractionism….
It was decided that Cuban painting would have to be destroyed, in a manner of speaking…We decided to use North American abstraction as our form, because in Cuba there was no tradition…. We also discovered that abstract art was the only weapon with which we could frighten people….Then it seemed to us that our painting served as a means to raise consciousness.
On the third anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, in January 1963, the new revolutionary government sponsored an exhibition in Havana with the title Abstracto Expresionismo. As the title of this show indicates, the visual language of Abstract Expressionism was identified both with the insurgent forces that had toppled the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and with the art world movement that had radically expanded the discursive field for cosmopolitan modernisms in Cuba. Moreover, this exhibition also made clear that the so-called socialist realism of the Soviet Union would find little favor in revolutionary Cuba. Indeed, Che Guevara condemned the latter in 1965 as a specific nineteenth-century French art that would only constrain artistic practice in a revolutionary setting, where experimentalism was the order of the day. The first Cuban edition of Che Guevara’s most famous text on the culture of socialism explicitly contrasts examples of a newly validated Cuban modernism (in this case semi-figurative paintings by René Portocarrero and Wilfredo Lam, as well as the new art school at Cubanacán) with the stultifying visual forms of contemporary Soviet art, which are entitled “Sobre los bases del siglo pasado.” [On the basis of past century.] As for the design of the book’s cover, by an artist named Chago, it is clearly linked with the Russian Constructivism of the pre-Stalin era.
Painter and printmaker Raúl Martinez (1927-1995), easily one of the most significant artists to work in Cuba from the 1950s to his death there in the 1990s, observed that the language of Abstract Expressionism was particularly important not only for opening up Cuban painting to a new international dialogue in the arts, but also for its power of cultural negation during this period.