April 5, 2009

New York's Art World Meets Cuba's Communism

By David Paulin

At the heart and soul of being an artist is freedom of expression. So how to explain all those chic American artists now having a jolly good time at an art festival underway in Cuba? How, in short, can these sophisticated folks reconcile the fact that artistic freedom does not exist in Cuba so long as Cubans do not enjoy the kinds of freedoms that Americans take for granted?

Well, don't look for an answer in a lengthy and upbeat article about the festival in the “Art and Design" section of the New York Times. The 10th biannual festival, as the Times cheerfully notes, is now in full swing after recently opening in Havana, and among the 300 artists on hand from 54 countries is the biggest exhibition by American art galleries in Cuba since the 1959 revolution.” Also in attendance are American painters, critics and buyers.

All in all, 30 American artists are having their wares presented in an exhibition called “Chelsea Visits Havana,” put on by Megan Projects Gallery, located in Manhattan's trendy Chelsea section -- a hotbed for the city's trendy art scene. “The hope is that this will be a first step toward normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations,” gallery owner Alberto Magnan, a Cuba-American, tells the Times. “Chelsea Visits Havana” includes works from more than two dozen trendy American art galleries.

As to the festival's theme, it's appropriate for one held in the hemisphere's last bastion of communism: “Integration and Resistance in the Global Age.” Of course, there's apparently nothing in the exhibit about resistance to Cuba's communist government, which owns nearly all of the island's property and businesses and tolerates no serious non-violent dissent. In a brief paragraph, Times author Ian Urbina only hints at Cuba's repression, noting that a Cuban skate boarder whom he interviewed didn't want to be named. He was afraid he'd be “pegged as a dissident,” Urbina explained.

While Urbina steers clear of criticizing Cuba's government, he does take some jabs at former President George Bush's administration, noting it had denied many Cuban artists travel visas so that they could sell their work in the U.S. He writes:

Before the Bush administration stopped giving visas, many of Cuba’s top artists spent months at a time in the United States or Europe. They stayed linked to the island partly because collectors are typically more interested in works produced by Cuban-based — not immigrant — artists.

Now, with a new administration in Washington, many in the art world say they believe that there will be a loosening on restrictions, and that the Cuban art market will benefit.

Of course, there's another side to this. Those who do well in Cuba, those who make a good U.S.-style living (including artists), are those who play along with the communist charade to one extent or another.

All in all, the Times article (“Havana Biennial, in Which Chelsea Takes a Field Trip to Cuba”) is an interesting commentary on America's sophisticated art world: collectors and galleries are more interested in the work of artists based in Cuba -- as opposed to those of Cuban expatriates who are free to express their creative impulses!

What explains the cognitive dissonance of all these sophisticated American artists, buyers, and collectors who are frolicking under the watchful eye of Cuba's secret police? Sarah Thornton, an art historian and sociologist, provides something of an answer in her book, “Seven Days in the Art World.” As Publishers Weekly notes:

The hot, hip contemporary art world, argues sociologist Thornton, is a cluster of intermingling subcultures unified by the belief, whether genuine or feigned, that nothing is more important than the art itself. It is a conviction, she asserts, that has transformed contemporary art into a kind of alternative religion for atheists.

No wonder, then, that America's trendiest artist find it so easy to overlook and apologize for the regime that's providing them such a rollicking good time in Havana.

This was originally published at The American Thinker.