PRINT Summer 1985

Kitsch in Cuba

WHEN I WAS INVITED to visit Cuba to attend the first colloquium of Cuban painting and the annual salon of Cuban art sponsored by the artists and writers union, UNEAC, I did not expect to see artists working with kitsch images. Kitsch has been variously defined as bad taste or false art. Clement Greenberg in his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” defines it as “ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide. . . . Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations.”1 And as Matei Calinescu points out in his book Faces of Modernity: Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, (1977), “the link between kitsch . . . and economic development is indeed so close that one may take the presence of kitsch in countries of the ‘Second’ or ‘Third’ world as an unmistakable sign of ‘modernization.’”2 Thus an inevitable sign of “development” is the replacement of genuine folk art with cheap, mass-produced, sweet and sentimental plaster, plastic, and china objects. Still, after seeing the revolutionary art of political posters and the graphic documentary photography that we have come to associate with Cuban art, I was surprised by the preponderance of kitsch.

The kitsch objects used in Cuban working-class decoration are the epitome of bad and backward taste not only by our criteria, but also by those of the professionally trained middle-class Cuban artists. Yet it is precisely this kitsch sensibility that has been taken as subject matter by a group of Cuban artists. The attitude of these artists toward this kitsch subject matter is not critical, and is more closely related to a camp sensibility. However, the Cuban attitude seems to be more sympathetic than ironic, and walks a thin line between criticism and approval. These artists seem to be examining it as a way to approach Cuban reality now. On the other hand, there is no attempt to promote this kitsch taste as a positive value simply because it is an expression of mass taste. Unlike Nazi Germany, where kitsch was promoted as an official art, after Hitler outlawed abstraction and Expressionism as decadent, Cuba has actively sought to raise the level of taste of the masses. Raising the taste of the people was one of the aims of creating art schools in the provinces as well as in Havana,and of founding the local Casas de Cultura, or cultural centers, which give classes and have exhibition spaces. In addition, all art-school graduates are required to do two years of public service—usually teaching or working in these provincial centers—as a kind of “pay-back” for their free education.

The experience of Mario García Joya, “Mayito,” one of Cuba’s leading still photographers and cinematographers, helps to clarify the complex role of kitsch in contemporary Cuban art. When Mayito began to photograph in the town of Caibarién in 1983, it was with a directly critical attitude. Caibarién, one of several Cuban towns with traditional festivals, is an example of spontaneous kitsch carried to an extreme. Every year, for the past ninety, the town has been divided into two teams, loma (hill) and marina (waterfront), which compete in a float competition. Practically everyone in the town participates, making papier-mâché flowers and painting the floats. This decorative spirit carries over into the decoration of their homes, as well. As he photographed in this environment, Mayito became convinced of the validity of this art as a sincere expression of the people who made it. “Some people feel that the kitsch objects less-educated people use to decorate their homes, cars, stores are chosen because they don’t have any other options,” Mayito explains. For him, however, this is not true. “Artistic taste is connected to life; one cannot change only taste. It doesn’t depend on one’s will, you can’t pass a law; it depends on the capacity for appreciation and the level of education of the people.” As the Cuban critic Gerardo Mosquera points out, “There is a big difference between the kitsch designed by specialists in the production of mass culture and the spontaneous kitsch of the worker who decorates his bed or the driver who decorates his truck.”3

The work of the painter Raúl Martínez, who created a Cuban version of Pop art in the 1960s, provides a Cuban precedent for this work by younger artists that draws on popular-culture images. For the Cuban representation at the 1984 Venice Biennale, Martínez and Mayito collaborated to create a large painted and photographic environment based chiefly on images of Caibarién and the theme of the family. Martínez and Mayito are both from the artistic generation that reached maturity before the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista. From this generation have come the images associated with Cuban revolutionary art: the posters of Rene Azcuy, Eduardo Muños (or “Bachs”), Felix Beltran, Umberto Peña, Alfredo Rostgaard, and Martínez himself; the photos of Alberto Díaz (“Korda”), Raúl Corral (“Corrales”), and Mayito. Now in their forties and fifties, they are internationally known artists within the Cuban artistic hierarchy and serve as heads of projects, juries, etc. In the past almost all Cuban artists worked for one institution or another in an art-related job, as designers, teachers, curators, etc., but in the last few years, with the buildup of galleries and a free-market system for art, several of the better-known painters have left their jobs and are living off commissions and the sale of art. The next generation are artists in their thirties, early graduates of new art schools like the architecturally exotic though somewhat unwieldy Cubanacan, with its womblike structures, where the highest-level art school ,the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), is located. Among them is the atmospheric landscapist Tomás Sánchez; the sophisticated primitivist Manuel Mendive; the ironic social critic Pedro Pablo Oliva; and the more traditionally “revolutionary” imagists Nelson Domínguez and Eduardo Roca (“Choco”), with their paintings of rural life and cane-cutters. Domínguez and Choco, who are professors at the ISA, toured the United States in 1981 with the exhibition “First Look,” which showed the work of ten young Cuban painters.

If the first generation sought to glorify and testify to the changes brought about in Cuban life by the revolution (or ignore the changes and continue in the same abstract styles pursued before), and the second to depict its reality directly in either a realist or surrealist fashion, the new generation of young artists, now in their twenties—children of the revolution who never experienced any reality other than that of the new Cuba—have through necessity chosen a different, more circuitous route. Long before these young artists graduated from high school every stylistic variant of the “Che portrait” had been tried. In the UNEAC show there were no more than perhaps a dozen of these out of several hundred pieces. After 26 years of revolution, life in Cuba is focused more toward personal and family concerns than “Revolution.”

It is just this unheroic quality that a group of these young artists have seized upon as the basis of their art and the solution of the problem of how to be Cuban, revolutionary, and new. Leandro Soto makes installations using cutout toy soldiers and “kitsch” family photos to explore the heroic past, of the battle against the counterrevolutionaries in the Escambray mountains, in a spirit that is decidedly antiheroic. The feeling is of a little boy playing with toy soldiers; it is heightened by the fact that the public is invited to participate and move the figures about. The work of Flavio Garciandía, who interestingly enough was born in Caibarién, has a much more intellectual quality. Just 31, he is a little older than the others; he teaches at the ISA and serves as a kind of leader for this group. Garciandía began his work with kitsch objects by treating pieces of commercial kitsch decoration as found objects, bringing them into the gallery and using them to make wall pieces and installations. In the UNEAC show, he presented a series of small shaped canvases illustrating common proverbs—“a penny saved is a penny earned”—of the kind that are written on plaques and hung in people’s homes. But on Garciandía’s plaques only half the saying is given. The image wittily provides the rest. In writing about the work of Garciandía, Mosquera credits Frank Stella’s influence as the crucial element that led this artist toward kitsch: “The influence of Frank Stella set in motion his [Garciandía’s] work in which he uses the support in a different sense, in the direction of the shaped canvases, and it led him to explore the possibilities of ‘bad taste’ within the ‘postmodernist opening’”.4

In Cuba, too, high-art images like the Mona Lisa have passed from the universe of fine art to that of pop culture. Consuelo Castañeda brings them back. She paints fragments of the Mona Lisa like puzzle pieces dropped on a canvas. To represent Adam and Eve, she uses isolated images of apples, leaves, and fragments of human anatomy. Another young woman artist, Marta María Perez Bravo, takes the idea of peasants planting superstitions as the starting point for her works made with shredded paper and done in a natural setting.

Not all the artists in this group use contemporary kitsch forms in their search for a way to approach the Cuban reality. Other members use much the same approach, but apply it to a lost past rather than the present as a way of defining their Cubanness while experimenting with contemporary forms of representation. The native Indian peoples of Cuba and the other islands of the Antilles were quickly and entirely wiped out by the Spaniards. Blacks were imported from Africa as a labor force for the sugar plantations. Cuban culture is a mixture of African and Spanish with, since the beginning of this century, an overlay of U.S. influence. In Cuba today, certain elements of the Yoruba tradition like the African religion Santería coexist with the national Afro-Cuban mix, and artists like Mendive draw from this living tradition for their art. This indigenous culture played no role in the development of Cuba. Yet certain artists have chosen to restore and reinvent this lost heritage. As his task, Ricardo Brey has taken the recreation of the lost manuscripts of the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who studied the natural history of Cuba. Using the stencil medium, Brey invents the pages according to the historical record, the bugs that presumably ate the manuscripts, as well as the spears of the Indians who fought their authors. José Bedía and the sculptor Juan Francisco Elso take a more anthropological approach in installations using Indian shirts, corn, coal, etc. It is this circuitous method of approach toward self-definition through the use of mass-cultural artifacts, be they contemporary or ancient, that joins these and the kitsch artists in a common movement.

This generation of artists follows recent developments in U.S. and European art. This is hardly a new tendency in the development of Cuban art. Wifredo Lam and Amelia Pelaez were part of the international Surrealist and abstractionist movements; the poster-makers of the 1960s borrowed freely from Pop and geometric abstraction. Cuban artists have always had an international outlook and have been actors in the international art world. This did not change with the revolution; it has merely become more difficult because of the isolation of Cuba. There have never been any stylistic restrictions on Cuban art—although there is a topic restriction based on Fidel’s famous dictum in his “Speech to the Intellectuals” of June 1961: “Within the revolution everything, against the revolution nothing.” In practical terms this means that art need not be “revolutionary,” but it cannot be directly opposed to Cuban policy. The question of what Cuban (and what international) art should be is debated, but U.S. influences are not rejected per se simply because of the imperialist past or adversary present.

The Cuban art establishment has been very supportive of this newest generation of Cuban artists, in spite of the fact that their work shows a strong stylistic influence from recent U.S. art. Although apparently apolitical, the underlying politics of these installations is based on the socialist principle of emphasis on the common man. Whether the artist is working with cultural artifacts, a lost past, or decorative objects from a kitsch present, the basic approach is the same. In their emphasis on everyday objects valued by ordinary people these artists reflect the Cuban reality and the important, though not heroic, meaning that the Cuban revolution has acquired for its own population in recent years—free and universal health care, education, housing, etc. The focus on popular culture, however, contains within it a certain irony. The United States has influenced not only the style but also, until the Cubans figure out a way to raise the taste of the average Cuban citizen (as they have the literacy level),a content that includes the relics of 1950s Miami bad taste—Cuban kitsch.

Eva Sperling Cockcroft is an artist who writes frequently on Latin American art.



1. Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Art and Culture, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961, p. 10.

2. Matei Calinescu, Faces of Modernity: Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977.

3. Gerardo Mosquera, “La Buena Forma de las Formas Malas,” Union (Havana, 1984), p. 41. My translation.

4. Gerardo Mosquera, op. cit., p. 36. My translation.