Cuba: the Artist as Political Hero

This past week the foundation was host to Helmo Hernandez, the president of the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, one of only six charitable foundations in that country.  The Ludwig Foundation is dedicated to the support of contemporary art in Cuba and of the artists producing that work, and to advancing cultural exchanges. 

I was privileged to spend some time with Mr. Hernandez, showing him around a number of Cleveland’s cultural institutions.  A highlight of his visit was a lecture he gave at the Cleveland Institute of Art.  His lecture – basically a history of Cuban art – was revelatory.  There is so little we know of the culture of our tantalizingly close but forbidden neighbor. 

He suggested that the world should recognize a third governmental structure in addition to socialist and capitalist forms: 3rd World Revolutionary Government.  In these governments, he said, the art is necessarily revolutionary – abstract and avant garde.  The main role of the artist is to be part of the critical consciousness of society.  What blew my mind was the fact that Cuba has an established Cultural Ministry and the nation’s artists – complete with their critical focus on society – are political heroes. 

The work of the contemporary Cuban artists that we saw in Mr. Hernandez’ slides can stand proudly alongside the best artists anywhere.  The cultural exchanges with other nations (but not the U.S.) are impressive and vigorous.

But while the art scene in Cuba is vibrant and competitive with the best contemporary culture anywhere, the nation itself remains desperately poor.  Cuba is now in what they call a Special Period – “We have lost the support of the Soviet era, and the American embargo still keeps us isolated.  We are alone at last,” said Mr. Hernandez.  “Life has stopped in Cuba.  We have to think about how to survive, and so we are changing all the time.” 

The last slides he showed were, at first confusing – glass Coke bottles with the top half cut off.  And a wine glass made of parts of two glass bottles cut and joined together to make the cup and the stem of the glass.  He explained that, because of the embargo, Cuba cannot import basic needs – like water glasses and so people must make their own by recycling existing material.  Broken refrigerators become bookshelves, for example. 

And, although they have no wine, people make wine glasses, if only as a symbol.  “Because,’ he said, “we deserve wine.  We have creativity, courage and intelligence.  But the most important thing for us to remember is dignity.”