Portrait of the Artist As a Communist Bureaucrat

Cuba's Minister of Culture Abel Prieto faces a daunting challenge: Sell Cuban culture to the world, but don't sell out the revolution

Musicians such as Cortes, as well as leading writers and visual artists, live well in Cuba because the money they earn abroad can buy much more at home than in Europe or the United States. In addition favored artists are awarded first-class housing by the state, and their lifestyles, though not exceptional by world standards, are luxurious compared with those of other Cuban citizens. "I have enough offers that I could go live in Italy or Spain or Sweden right now," says the 48-year-old Cortes, "but why would I want to?" Considering his living situation, Cortes's sentiment is understandable. His commodious home includes a well-equipped recording studio, and he's able to rehearse his band on his rooftop terrace, which boasts a breathtaking view of Havana.

For 27-year-old artist Marco Castillo, living anywhere but in Cuba would be out of the question at this point in his career. Castillo is a member of Los Carpinteros, a three-man visual-arts collective whose work has been enthusiastically received by the international art world. The group's conceptual sculpture, paintings, and installations were included in seventeen exhibitions in the United States and Europe last year, and the artists attended the openings of almost all those shows.

The Carpinteros graduated from the state Instituto Superior de Arte in 1994, just when international interest in Cuban art was reaching a crescendo. Since then foreign curators and collectors have made regular visits to Castillo's home studio in Havana to buy work and invite the group to participate in shows as far away as South Africa.

Castillo feels no conflict between his life in Cuba and his successful ventures abroad, noting only that he has access to better materials when he creates work while in foreign cities. "I think today's young artists are much better prepared than previous generations in Cuba for the life of an international artist," he says, acknowledging that artists a decade older than he, many of whom defected in the early Nineties and now live in Miami, suffered more severe ideological and economic constraints.

"I've never felt like we've been missing anything in Cuba," he continues. "There's a reality now, and it's called consumption of Cuban art. And where people come to look for it is here, in Cuba. They don't want to look for Cuban art in Miami. It hurts me to say that because there are good artists in Miami. But it's true. Miami is not the capital of Cuba. Havana is the capital of Cuba, and Cuba is what's hot. We just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

"I feel perfectly at home when I'm in New York or anywhere else I may go," he adds. "I'm like any international artist with a certain amount of success whose career requires travel." Castillo plans to spend a quiet summer in Havana before heading to California in September, when Los Carpinteros will lead a workshop for students at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Over the past couple of years, Cuban artists have with increasing frequency been traveling outside the country and returning to Cuba. Are you concerned about how this will affect the arts on the island? How do you preserve a national culture when so many are going abroad?

I think Cuban culture is not weakened by all that movement. Cuban culture is one that has a very strong national essence but a very intense relationship with the world. It's a culture that's very open to international influences.

And Cuban culture is very much opposed to [cultural] chauvinism, to being closed off, to the idea of being an isolated culture. It's always been that way. That comes from Jose Marti. Cuban culture has always had that universal mission. Music, for example, feeds off many influences and at the same time the core of it remains unchanged. It seems to me this international movement of Cuban artists nourishes Cuban culture. Wherever a Cuban artist may live, he keeps producing Cuban art. He continues to convey a message that has to do with this universal mission.

But now it also seems that the people return; the tendency is to return to Cuba. More than 10,000 artists live in Havana; they go and they come back. Some stay abroad for a while.

Then there are the emigrants who live in Miami and have a different kind of relationship [with Cuba]. But certainly the emigrant artist who lives in Miami continues creating Cuban culture. For me it's striking that some artists who are Cuban nevertheless would like Cuba [to become part of the United States]. They've lived a terrible trauma. I call it cultural schizophrenia. On the one hand, in their art they're very Cuban, and on the other they experience a kind of dichotomy that sometimes is dramatic.

We maintain a very mature attitude toward the culture or art that Cubans outside Cuba are making. We're constantly seeking exchanges with that culture of emigration. That's our position.

What, in your opinion, could the exiles do to cure that cultural schizophrenia you speak of? Are you saying they should return? Are you suggesting they be open to exchange?

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