Lessons from Havana

cubaIt is useful to remember that there is a place, not far from here, which makes our Wall Street worries look like luxury problems. The average salary in Cuba is around $20 US dollars a month, which is the equivalent of a regular dinner in a tourist restaurant in Habana Vieja. Economic contrasts border on surrealism, and yet Cuban society manages somehow to survive through a system of inventive informal businesses and exchanges that involve outsmarting the government and permanently playing a game of intrigue and paranoia.

The Cuban situation in the art sphere has always been equally perplexing: Cuba doesn’t have private galleries, art magazines or independent art foundations. Internet access is heavily restricted if at all available. Only a handful of artists (who normally live outside of the country) actually get to make a profit of their art. And yet over the years Cuba produced as many or more consequential artists than other countries who may boast of far stronger infrastructure and support system for the arts. Which leads me to ask: amidst all this soul-searching after the fall of the markets, can the Cuban example help the art world re-envision itself?

In Cuba it is really hard to get quick answers to anything, though, as reality is so complex. For starters, the meeting of the art world and the Cuban reality is an awkward one. The Havana Biennial, which just opened its 10th edition last week, is an event that best exemplifies the contrasts and ironies of today’s art world. Officially entitled “Globalization and Resistance,” one could see the event as the ultimate anti-Dubai, anti-Chelsea event. Yet, there was a parallel show precisely entitled “Chelsea,” comprised of New York artists who show at Chelsea galleries. The event seemed to be quite successful, no one seemed to think it was a contradiction to the curatorial premises of the biennial, and everyone seemed happy. The biennial per se, however, as well as the theoretical forum I attended, were much more true to form. Continue reading “Lessons from Havana”