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

Up to a certain point. [But] I'd say the opposite is true. The lack of censorship and the excess of freedom of expression are hurting our literature to an extent. There's clearly an excess of characters like prostitutes, the corrupt official, the person who sells medicine on the black market. The literature could reach higher, obtain a much higher poetic level. [But] you have to judge by reading the books and magazines. For being a blockaded country, we have an impressive space for cultural discussion and debate.

In these past ten years that have been so terrible, so hard, so complicated, intellectuals have not been robbed of their authenticity. They still have doubts. It's the nature of their work to question the world, the prevailing order -- so the fact that no one has been able to introduce a "fifth column" among Cuban intellectuals is impressive. And that doesn't result from repression. That can only be achieved with an enormously open system.

We don't have the conflict other socialist countries have had. They did engender internal dissidence and heretical intellectual thought. [But] here there's been an officially promoted discussion, an artistic heresy. That has not occurred in any other socialist country. It's an original and absolutely unrepeatable characteristic of this revolution.

Titon [filmmaker Tomas Gutierrez Alea] was a revolutionary, a revolutionary with contradictions and worries. [His 1968 film] Memories of Underdevelopment deals with doubts about what role the principal character [will have in the revolution]. Finally he emigrates, but nevertheless the film is not counterrevolutionary. Many people have emigrated without any political motivation. Memories asks tremendous questions about the revolution's development amid American attacks, in the middle of the worst crisis.

It's interesting that in this country a revolutionary and critical art has flourished. Heretical and positive at the same time, an art that has combined heresy with this Cuban revolutionary affirmation. That's very remarkable.

And if the art is critical of the revolution?
"Against the revolution nothing, within the revolution everything." [Laughs] I think that [Castro axiom] remains true, but there's a lot of room to move. I believe there are some principles we have to hold to any way we can. It would be suicide to encourage an attack against those principles. It would be demagogic. But at the same time I think those principles are not on the agenda of critical art. From the point of view of someone who's committed to [the revolution], everything is within. You can touch on any issue, and in fact artists are touching upon them. What happened was that at other times there was confusion about the expression "against the revolution nothing." Some thought that all critical art could be or was counterrevolutionary, and that to be revolutionary, art had to praise, to extol.

In the United States art is assumed, at least ideally, to be spontaneous and individual by definition. From our point of view, the very idea of a minister of culture, a government official who administers and oversees culture, is incongruous and by its very nature repressive.

Art is spontaneous? You believe that? [Laughs] In the United States you have a regulated market that's much stronger than any ministry of culture. The mechanism of censorship that exists in the United States is striking. Every American knows who Sylvester Stallone is. Or they saw Forrest Gump, which is an offensive film with the most right-wing and reactionary ideas possible, and it won all the Oscars. In Cuba people loved it, and it's well done, but it's terribly manipulative. The film's thesis has a tremendous pretense: that intelligence is an obstacle to happiness and that to be integrated [within society] you have to be an idiot.

That's a chilling thesis. If that thesis dominated the cultural world, it would be terrible. Then a man like [linguist and political activist] Noam Chomsky would be totally restricted to intellectual circles. I'm sure that the great mass of people in the United States don't have any idea who Noam Chomsky is, but they nevertheless embrace Madonna and Stallone and Michael Jackson as great fetishes. You're not going to publish this [laughs], but it's an implacable censorship operation. I don't think we have anything similar to that.

In the United States [Russian author Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn would have a huge swimming pool and The Gulag Archipelago would be Dallas. It would be a television show, that's what you would do to Solzhenitsyn. You wouldn't have sent him to Siberia -- forget that -- you'd have either bought him out or totally wiped him off the map. He'd be publishing some little book with an obscure university press or he'd have to write Dallas in order to become known.

This mechanism is really admirable. I always study it. It's true there are cracks in the [U.S.] system. There are films produced that are truly critical, and successful books that form part of a true alternative thought. I'm not simplifying it, nor do I believe there's a big brain behind it or a team of guys with a computer controlling a blacklist. After McCarthyism it evolved into a much more subtle, much better conceived mechanism of censorship.

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