Thursday, October 28, 2010

on art in cuba

I wanted to mention our lecture the other day with Fernando, who I guess I could call our cultural liaison. He works at the Ludwig Foundation, which is an organization here that organizes cultural events. From what I understand, they do everything from visual art exhibits to dance performances.

Fernando gave us a lecture about Cuban dance history, which was really lucky because I knew next to nothing before. Most notably, I did not realize this crucial point: before the revolution, there was effectively no dance scene in Cuba. Now, Fernando made a point to distinguish the three classifications of dance in the country. Folkloric (afro-cuban), popular (for fun), and artistic (...). Alicia Alonso came back to cuba at some point after the revolution in 1959. She had married someone in the states who had some money, and together they started teaching dance here in cuba. In the 60s the state created the National Schools of Art, which is where I'm taking classes now.

Apparently there were cubans who studied with Merce Cunninghman and Martha Graham who returned to Cuba and taught dance. So contemporary dance in cuba has roots in those techniques. But the most obvious influence to me is of course afro-cuban folkloric dance. Fernando pointed out that the biggest shift away from Martha and Merce was the torso and hips. Cubans like to move them! More undulation.

The Ludwig Foundation's offices are two blocks from our house, on the top floor of this nice apartment building that I would guess dates from the 50s or 60s. The top floor belongs to the foundation. There's a beautiful gallery space with floor to ceiling windows and sliding glass doors that open onto a terrace that has amazing views of the city and the ocean. It's very fresh, very modern, and it's the cleanest and whitest place I've seen in all of Cuba. It feels like this little rooftop escape for the artistic elite.

Speaking of artistic and elite. One of my friends made a comment today that struck me as revealing. We had just seen a dance performance and we were talking about how great it is that there's so much going on culturally in Cuba. She then said something along the lines of "well it's too bad that in the states we have all these obstacles in place for artists." And then someone else chimed in, "yeah, here artists all make the same as everyone else." "And it's their ticket out of the country, to travel."

This bugged me for several reasons, and instead of saying anything I just thought about it for the rest of the walk home. First of all, you don't think there are as many obstacles in place for cuban artists? The only people who get to GO to the conservatories are the best of the best of the best. You get groomed from a very young age. If you don't show "talent," you don't get the training. There are tests here. If you don't pass them, you don't go to college. You don't go to the conservatory. You become a police officer. To me, that appears to be a very significant obstacle.

Fortunately in the states we have the luxury of indulging in $60k a year private colleges that encourage the idea that you don't have to have the best technique to be an artist. You don't have to be the best of the best of the best. You just have to have good ideas and work hard. It doesn't mean you'll get anywhere, or make any money. But you'll probably have a lot more money than the artists in Cuba. You'll probably be considered a "starving artist," but you'll still be richer than the people here.

And while I'm ranting, I should clarify the myth that artists here make the same amount as everyone else. There's a range of salaries for everyone, including among artists. The most successful artists end up making money outside of Cuba. I'm pretty sure they have to pay a certain percentage to the state. So yes, you can become "rich." "Cuban rich," which means you can buy a new car or have a house all your own. And yes, you get to travel internationally to perform or exhibit or whatever it is you do. And that's great. You get to leave. It's great. And then you can't afford the Starbucks at the airport. Isn't that great?

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