Art, Politics, and an Education in Havana

by Don Skoog

     The building where we study was ugly even when it was new. A Soviet contribution to the Cuban revolution, it was designed for function, conspicuously devoid of any sense of joy, joy being a distraction from the relentless labor of remolding a society. Age has not improved it, but this school has devolved into a place its architects could never have imagined when they designed it.
     The central courtyard is overrun with weeds and paint chips collect below its peeling walls, but you can still imagine when it was new and uniformed students stood in formation, vowing in unison to resist the imperialistas to the north. There used to be rusty diagrams posted to demonstrate how to hold a gun. Now, even the posts are gone, and a long-haired boy wearing a hip-hop tee practices trumpet under a tree. To him, the revolution is just a chapter in a textbook.
     This is the Escuela Nacionál de Arte, or ENA, a state-run school that has been a battle zone for the artistic and political forces which have shaped the island, and a still-standing survivor, if not winner, of the fight.
     Built on the grounds of an old golf course, the ENA is visible on a city map as a huge green patch in the Cubanicán district of Havana. Before the revolution the neighborhood was called Country Club Park, one of the richest areas of the city. Nearby is Ambassador Row, where stately mansions house foreign dignitaries and high-ranking Cuban officials. The houses around the ENA were once owned by the well-to-do, many of them undoubtedly Americans. These are being rehabbed and it is only a little ironic that some of them now serve as dormitories for American guests of the Cuban government. As in Rome after the fall, today’s Cubans live in the ruins of another age, but a new society has emerged from the remnants of the old and, like a double-exposure photo, the effect can be both poignant and disconcerting.
     Cuban anthropologists use the term transculturation to describe the formation of their society. Unlike the process of assimilation, in which a dominant, usually foreign, culture absorbs indigenous peoples into the larger society, transculturation melds the cultures of different peoples (in this case, European, African, and Asian) into something new, a people who are more than the sum of their parts. While this concept works well to describe the historical formation of the Cuban people, culture change in the twentieth century has moved so fast that the Cubans are just beginning to transculturate the effects of those who dominated their island for over a century.
     Sitting side-by-side, the ENA’s various buildings reflect the different forces which defined the course of twentieth-century Cuban history. The oldest is the art-deco, pre-revolutionary clubhouse that now serves as a college. Next are two sumptuously Latino-looking red-brick buildings, architectural treasures which house the painting and dance schools. Their rounded archways epitomize Cuba’s emerging self-awareness, separate from its various patron countries. Two more of these building are unfinished and partly in ruins, although still in use. And another, the most intriguing, lies hidden in a ravine, covered by trees and abandoned. Lastly, is the drab, Russian relic where we study music, and its haunted sister, the student dormitory.
     In these buildings a culture war was fought––first won, then lost, and now drawn. And it is here that I come to gain a different, and very personal, perspective on the meaning of art in society.
     In her new memoir, Dancing with Cuba, Alma Guillermoprieto recounts her time as a dance teacher at the ENA. Starting with her training in the New York dance scene, Guillermoprieto describes how she was shaped by the choreographical philosophies of Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp––philosophies founded on the assumption that artists develop in accordance with their inner spirit, regardless, and in defiance, of the society around them.
     Once in Cuba, she discovered that dancers there were far more constrained by the state, working in an environment where art was judged by its utility to the cause, and where creative artists were mistrusted, marginalized, and sometimes imprisoned. In order to function within the system, Guillermoprieto did her best to buy into it. Intellectually, she strove to incorporate socialism into her art and to incorporate herself into the revolution. Artistically, she sought to teach an internally-inspired, creative discipline to students who desperately needed to conform to survive.
     Caught between the two, she struggled to balance them, igniting an internal crisis which led her through, and beyond, ideology to confront the irreconcilable. Her description of the journey gives us a stark vision of how artists are molded by the societies they live in, and of how people and governments, alike, damage the most sensitive among us.
     According to Guillermoprieto, the ENA was Castro’s idea. Conceived in 1961, the school was to be a socialist phoenix rising from the ashes of the capitalist defeat.

     It isn’t clear whether Fidel himself made the decision not to demolish the main building, when he gave orders to dismantle the rest of the club in order to turn it into a great breeding ground for the arts, or if it was simply that here, as in the rest of Cuba, the economic imperative required that buildings that were themselves representations of the class enemy be preserved. In any case, when the school was built, each of the arts––theater, dance, ballet, music, and plastic arts––was given an independent complex of buildings, with its own classrooms and studios. But the school’s administrative offices were located in the marmoreal salons of the old Country Club building. Anyone who came to the school had to pass through its wedding-cake portal and spacious lobby. Viewed as a work of architecture, the structure was a poor imitation of alien glories, yet in the period I knew it, it was beautiful, because the labor of revolution was turning out to be very harsh, and after years of privation and constant scarcity the former home of the Country Club had become, even for those who had never enjoyed any of its luxuries, nostalgia incarnate, a ghost-building of bygone splendor and ostentation, a magical world in a bubble.

     That was in 1970. Today, the clubhouse is home to the Instituto Superior de Arte, or ISA. Now separately administrated from the ENA, it is no less beautiful, if more rundown, than when Guillermoprieto wandered its halls.
     The ENA project was led by Ricardo Porro, a respected Cuban architect who enlisted the aid of two Italians, Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi, to help him construct a revolutionary new school. On the old country club grounds they would manifest a new vision in Cuban architecture worthy of the new vision in Cuban society. Guillermoprieto describes it,

     Five schools built out of brick and surrounded by jungle, conceived as an explosion of fragments––seen from the air, the design of each school was a variation on the form of a spiral at the moment it explodes––and at the same time as an African village––seen from within, each school was a complex of curved buildings, protectively circling a series of little plazas.

     With Castro’s support the project got off to a good start. Porro designed the Schools of Dance and Plastic Arts, Garatti the Schools of Ballet and Music, and Gottardi the School of Dramatic Arts.
     In their quest to create a truly Cuban architectural form, the team bypassed foreign materials, like cement and steel, opting instead to build with locally-made brick and terra-cotta tile. The country’s limited financial resources and the drive for self-sufficiency made these materials practical but it was the structural system the architects used that made the project so unusual.
     They revived a little-used concept, the Catalan vault, as the basic, unifying structural design for its various buildings. The Catalan vault utilizes layers of terra cotta tile to create thin archways of great beauty but relatively little weight. They are also exceedingly strong.
     In his book, Revolution of Forms, architectural historian, John A. Loomis explains their importance to the project,

     There are two aspects of the Catalan vault that should be noted. First, it is a very labor-intensive technique, one requiring skilled masons. For this reason its use died out in the U.S. during the 1920s and 1930s with the adoption of reinforced concrete. Second, few engineers are familiar with the system or have been capable of providing quantitative analysis of it, until the more recent development of computerized models. This technique resides within the artisan tradition of the master builder and not within the technical discipline of the engineer. With revolutionary Cuba’s material shortages, the use of the Catalan vault was a resourceful and inspired decision. The resulting organic shapes it made possible would be the formal signature of the National Arts Schools. Moreover, the cultural significance of the Catalan vault as a craft of Hispanic and Mediterranean origins was well understood by the architects . . who sought an appropriate idiom in which to develop their vision of a revolutionary cubanidad.

     Loomis describes the early days at the ENA.

     In a short time a skilled workforce developed––so skilled that at times construction got ahead of design. The construction teams exerted considerable pressure on the architects. Drawings were often made in haste, at a small scale and with few details––sometimes too late. But the synergy and collaborative spirit between the architects and the builders produced remarkably unified work. At peak periods of activity there might be as many as three hundred to four hundred workers at each site. To this day architects speak of the unusual commitment of these workers to the project. This was matched by the students of the future art schools themselves. With the project still under construction, classes commenced in 1962. As construction proceeded around them, students and teachers developed and put into practice a highly experimental curriculum that would direct their artistic formation. While architects, masons, and laborers were toiling, horn players practiced in the woods and ballet dancers pirouetted on the greens.


    The team managed to complete three of the most beautiful and controversial buildings on the campus. Guillermoprieto says,

. . . the School of Plastic Arts in particular alluded to Cuba’s joyous sexuality: each classroom––a cupola crowned by a small pointed skylight––had the unmistakable shape of a breast. At the center of the main plaza, water gushed from a fountain that evoked the form of a conch or papaya––the latter word so closely associated with the female pudenda in Cuba that it cannot be uttered in polite company.

    I can attest to the accuracy of her description. When you see this building for the first time the effect is just shocking enough to be stimulating, and its design is so complicated that I usually get lost in it, popping out a different entrance each time I wander through.

      The School of Dance is less whimsical but still quite striking. Because of its asymmetrical shape, many rooms in the building are longer on one side than at the other as if a giant had grabbed one end and squeezed. This asymmetry, combined with the curved walls and vaulted ceilings, creates a sense of constant motion where there is no place to rest your eyes. It gives me vertigo but I cannot resist walking through it every time I get the chance.
     But it is the School of Ballet that is the most fascinating, and least accessible, building at the ENA. Garatti’s design is perhaps the most elegant of the five schools. Its three domed pavilions are connected to a larger performance space by winding hallways roofed by Catalan vaults. There is a strong sense of both movement and harmony in this place, a feeling made magical by the filtered sunlight which illuminates its interior spaces through skylights, arches, and glassless windows.
     It is doubtful if the school ever served its original purpose. The famous dancer Alicia Alonso had helped to design it and was to serve as director, but when the building was almost done she took a look around and said “No me gusta,” perhaps as a way of distancing herself from the soon-to-be-discredited project. She never returned. Whatever her reason for disavowing the building, its fate was sealed. Used for a while to train circus performers, the School of Ballet was eventually abandoned.
     It sits in a forested ravine at a river bend in a remote, unused area of the campus. Getting there can be tricky since the paths to the complex are overgrown and because security guards discourage trespassers. For me, the descent into the ravine is a journey into living science fiction, as if I have returned to stand in the rubble of my own history. These are not ancient ruins, they are ours, but they are almost as engulfed as those of the Incas, and almost as forgotten. This architectural treasure is still more or less intact. Almost complete when construction was stopped, although emptied and stripped for building materials, the school still stands, yet the forest is taking it back. Covered by trees and surrounded by brush, vines hang from the skylights. It is hidden, waiting to be reclaimed.
     The Schools of Music and Dramatic Arts were never finished. Incomplete and partially in ruins, there is a disjointed uneasiness about these structures. The snakelike Music building stands near one of the campus gates, while the Dramatic Arts School was built behind the clubhouse. To the casual observer they are inexplicable and incongruous, leaving one wondering what the hell had happened here.
     Except for the Ballet school, the rest of the habitable buildings at the ENA are in use. Students and faculty practice the fine arts on an after-the-fall stage. Today, the ENA is a dance school with few costumes, a music school with few instruments, an art school with little canvas. Bare electric wires jut from the switch boxes. To turn on a light you carefully hook them together. A student may wear two different shoes and no socks. He may own one shirt, but clean it everyday. The food is white rice, black beans, and limp cabbage.
     Open-air hallways surround the classrooms at the high school. You step outside through a group of chattering students scurrying to class. Walk to the railing and look across the street at the air force base where ten years ago I actually saw a plane take off, but whose parade grounds now are covered with greenhouses in a effort to feed the cadets. Look up to see the tan buildings, green trees, and red dirt of Havana, and the distant strip of blue that is the sea beyond. The skyline is dominated by the Russian Embassy––perhaps the ugliest building ever constructed––now nearly empty, but in whose tower Soviet technocrats once kept watch on their newly enlightened protégés. When I look at it I think of Ozymandias, and of the island’s long strange path to where it finds itself now––a small, proud country whose nearest neighbor blockades its trade, a communist paradise where the only money that is worth anything is the U.S. dollar.
     When I talk with ex-pat Cubans in the United States, I sometimes feel that we are discussing two different islands. The country they describe often seems very different from the Cuba I know. Having been driven from their homeland, they missed its transformation, and are in for a surprise when they finally return. Not being a Cuban, I don’t feel I have the right to tell them that the country they knew lies in ruins––the socialist experiment that rose from its ashes is grinding to a halt, and the Cubans are treading water, waiting for a change as daily life slowly deteriorates.
     At the ENA, the teachers still struggle to train their students, but lately, as conditions worsen, the faculty are forced to seek outside work to support their families. Official jobs pay in Cuban pesos, worth about twenty cents each, and a professional makes the equivalent of about eleven dollars a month. So the faculty is often absent and kids wander the halls, practicing on their own. Teachers talk wistfully of the days when there was a doctor for the students, ice cream in the cafeteria, and instruments to practice on. For years the school was unguarded so equipment and food bled through the many holes in its fences. Those days are over, the holes are sealed and guards stand at the gates but, of course, no one thought of this until there was little left to steal.
     The ENA has a small budget and the government has few resources to support it so the school funds itself partly by catering to foreign student groups: pretty blond Danes studying dance, South American rich kids studying drinking, retired Canadians studying Spanish, the dreaded French studying who-knows-what, American college students studying politics, and our program which brings professionals––legally, mind you––to study music and dance.
     As foreigners paying in dollars, our experience of the school is very different from that of the Cuban students. Famous musicians come to teach us and instruments are commandeered for our use. But although we dominate their rooms and hoard their conga drums, the students put up with us because we are something different, and they are glad enough for any change in routine. Most of the time they seem to be waiting–– waiting to learn––waiting to play––waiting to go, anywhere.
     But it is not a bad school. Some of the most talented, accomplished artists on the island, teachers and students, can be found refining their work inside these beatup buildings and their art outshines even the best of the foreign students. A caring teacher and a hungry student are all you need to have a school. We come to learn and be a little humbled. It is not uncommon for a forty-year-old American to have his hat handed to him by a fifteen-year-old Cuban kid in a showdown. Cuba is a bad place to prove how good you are.
     However, talented as they are, Cuban artists are not immune to the ironies that plague their society. The problem of natural selection which dominates the arts––after all, there are always more artists than jobs––is exacerbated by the country’s exhausted economy and the government’s directives to produce art that is either ideologically revolutionary or attractive to the capitalist tourists whose dollars and euros keep the island financially afloat. The Cuban government’s late-coming and highly-touted support for traditional art has succeeded in turning the sacred music and dance of Afro-Cuban religion into a Las Vegas floor show. The tourists find the brightly-costumed, machete-toting dancers exotic as they thrust their hips to the rhythms of strange-looking drums. But the dancers themselves are highly trained professionals, some of whom find little inspiration in the daily repetition of standardized movements to traditional music. But it beats cutting sugarcane for a living.
     Most societies distrust the artists that live among them. While it is safe to enshrine our dead dancers, writers, and musicians, living artists can be pretty odd, very smart, and generally committed to social change. They are troublemakers––the gadflies who prick the beast to remind it not to sit on its young. Their insistence on seeing the world from unique, and sometimes unfathomable, viewpoints makes people uncomfortable. It is one thing to read the Leaves of Grass, and bask in Whitman’s reflected genius. It is another to have the old fart living next door.
     In the United States, where we have homogenized our culture into a commodity, creativity has been so marginalized that the independent minds among us are screaming desperately to be heard. That is why you see sculptures done in post-it notes and montages made of burnt toast. Unfortunately, the more extreme our alternative voices become the more we dismiss them.
     This process is more directly institutionalized in Cuba. In a socialist state where the government demands that everyone accept the same vision of society, strangely configured art, with its ambiguous messages, is a thing devoutly to be avoided. For artists, their craft is central to how they perceive the world regardless of whether they are ever recognized for it. Writers don’t know what they think until they put it on paper. Painters don’t know how they feel until they get it on canvas. In a country as paradoxical as Cuba the artists’ need to manifest their visions becomes obsessive. This can bring them into conflict with the government which prefers paintings of handsome young men, gun-in-hand and fist-raised, fearlessly standing up to the yanqui oppressor. Artists don’t see the world so simply.
     The problems of Cuban and American artists are complimentary––not mirrored but dovetailed. Our governments are at odds. Each has a competing and exclusive vision of how society should be structured, and the realities of this confrontation can be seen in the difficulties encountered by artists on both sides. Our stories become intertwined, but the particular energies our societies bring to the dynamic are very different.
     The U.S. government deals with the subversive power of art by aggressively neglecting it. The Pentagon spends more in one day than the National Endowment for the Arts spends in a year, and congress’s funding record reflects the attitude of many Americans who see the arts as, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, un-American. As government funding for education declines the first programs cut back are often Art and Music. This sparks a circular devolution: school boards cut arts funding because parents are less likely to protest that than the loss of, for example, the football program. As students receive less training in the arts they become less aware of their importance to society, and are less likely to support or defend them either in education or in daily life. In the end, the most creative, and least commercial, American artists work in a vacuum of social and political indifference.
     The Cuban government deals with the subversive power of art by subjugating it to the ideals of the revolution. Artists are not seen as individuals but as workers in the ranks of the proletariat, whose creations are accepted only as far as they promote the cause. Art is tolerated but not valued. As Guillermoprieto points out, when a sugarcane cutter is done for the day he goes home to rest, but intellectuals, artists, and students must still go to the fields after completing their real work (although this is less common than it was in 1970). So for Cuban artists to create, they must make sure that their work is, at least, not offensive to the bureaucrats who control their careers.
     This explains why, although the level of artistry there is extraordinarily high, the work of their most creative artists has a decidedly orthodox political message. The Cubans have struggled to emerge from under the artistic constraints of the Soviets. With only occasional shots at the Americans, Cuban artists have created a positive image of their society as prevailing over insurmountable obstacles to a better future that is always just over the horizon. They are trying to merge a timeworn ideology with an authentic vision. Their reality, however, is more complicated.
     In the case of the ENA, the attempt to create a truly Cuban style of architecture was undermined and eventually crushed by ideology and jealousy. Guillermoprieto says,

     Brick vaults immediately became the unmistakable leitmotif of the ENA: they revalidated both craftsmanship and what Cubans call cubanidad, while at the same time helping to define an absolutely original space.

     That, in fact, was precisely the accusation put forward by the enemies of Porro, Garatti, and Gottardi as they plotted their fall from grace. The Escuelas Nacionales de Arte revalidated individualistic and skill-based craftsmanship, they accused; the schools were built of brick and not prefabricated modules, they promoted sensuality and alluded to ideas of cubanidad and Africanness that were unacceptable to the revolution, which was proletarian, committedly internationalist, and resolutely opposed to any and all manifestations of decadence. Low mutterings against the school were already audible when their construction began.
     As criticism increased, various government agencies began to withdraw their support, and by 1965 Castro himself signaled the end of the experiment by publicly backing the Soviet concept of standardized, modular building construction. The ENA was declared officially open, unceremoniously, in July 1965, but construction was halted long before it was finished, and the school was disgraced long before it was opened. It is difficult for us to imagine such a fine project sabotaged by ideological rigidity. In the United States, the determining factor is usually money.
     American artists live in a place that is indifferent to what we do, a country where art is a product and we are the suppliers. For most of us, remaining an artist means selling our wares in the market––music for your bar mitzvah, paintings for your office lobby, ad copy for your dog food commercial––and so we reshape what we do so we can continue to do it. Over time, this deadens the soul. There is no one to blame, no way to fight back, only endless repetition. We know that if we quit tomorrow, no one will care.
     That is why Cuba comes as such a shock. There is a desperate intensity to their work, as if the constraints that bind them serve to focus their energies, like a river whose narrowing banks drive the racing water into a smaller, faster channel. Because of their frustrations, they have learned that what they do matters. Cuban artists are in a fight and they know it. They hunt for a way to honestly manifest the world as they see it while working within their government’s ideological restrictions. They seek for an upwardly inspired, individualistic expression of a downwardly imposed, common vision. It is up to them if Cuba is to retain its cubanidad. This makes for a lively work environment. And what of us?

     The night before my first trip to Cuba, I went to see a famous New York salsa band. They were bored and they sounded like it. They had been on the road too long, and this was just another gig. They played like they could have cared less but were just too tired to get up and leave. And after ten years of playing wedding receptions, I knew exactly how they felt.
     The next night, I was in Havana at the Palacio de Salsa watching the group N.G. La Banda blow the roof off the place, playing three straight high-intensity hours to a jam-packed dance floor and at least one shell-shocked North American. I couldn’t express how I felt, but it wasn’t good. My shock turned into anger, and the anger developed into a crisis that eventually saved my career, but for years I had no idea why.
     For foreigners, the heart wrenching confrontation of accomplished art and dire physical need is only a start. Cuba is a constant challenge to how we see ourselves and our understanding of our place among others. The beauty of Cuban women is well known but the guys are pretty studdly too. Trust me, Cuba can be a bad place to be a small white male. Considering both the competition and poverty, it is unsurprising that some Cuban women can be more attracted to the bulge in the back of your pants than to the one in front. Their self-aware beauty and canny fearlessness in facing their needs are more than a little daunting. The rules of politeness are different, the body language is different, the mindset is different, even the food is different. For anyone caught in a rut, Cuba is a great place to escape and, while you may find the process uncomfortable, it can be beneficial. The obligatory and ongoing redefinition of who we are is the main reason we return again and again.
     Walking the halls of the ENA is like being in a musicians’ fire fight. In one room, a small girl with long blonde hair plays Chopin on an out-of-tune Russian piano; in the next, three boys with duct-taped basses walk through the chord changes to Green Dolphin Street while a fourth solos; on the percussion floor, a big black kid sight reads a concerto on a marimba whose rusted metal frame sits on blocks of wood like a ‘57 Chevy, while outside his door a painfully thin girl beats the crap out of a snare drum; students cluster around the drum teacher’s studio as muffled timba patterns fight their way through the closed door; nearby, a kid plays three batá drums at one time, and in the next room, boys play rumba on the congas, singing together over the melodies of the drums.
     Sensory overload: the racing mind, the rum-induced hangover, the blur of color, sound, and movement. I’ve pushed my tired body to exhaustion from fear of missing something I might never see again. That was before I learned to pick and choose, before I discovered how miserable it is to be in class, sleep deprived and on the edge of emotional implosion. In the dark hours of the night, I’ve walked the quiet streets of Havana, a cigar in one hand and a beer in the other, trying to sort through my feelings about the chaos that Cubans accept as normal. Many foreigners find no place for themselves in the demands of the music and dance, the desperate attraction of man to woman, of woman to man, and no answers to the stark reality of need. This displacement drives us here again and again, seeking, and sometimes finding, a unique solution that works for us alone.
     Guillermoprieto’s internal struggle to understand the conflict between her vision of art and the reality of Cuba led her almost to suicide. In the end, they were irreconcilable and she was forced to flee or die. Like the ENA itself, she neither won nor lost, but emerged fundamentally transformed by the struggle. Not everyone’s experience of Cuba is as profound, yet I deeply empathize with her. People who manifest their reality through the process of creating art can suffer greatly if, in the end, their only tool fails them in their effort to create meaning from chaos. This was true for her, and for the architects who built the ENA.
     As the project was disavowed by the government, Porro realized he could be in trouble. He asked for permission to go into exile and was allowed to move to France in 1966. Garatti was arrested for espionage in 1974, was acquitted but expelled from the country. Only Gottardi still lives in Cuba.
     Although construction was abandoned, the school was not. In keeping with the new prefab architectural model two more buildings were constructed in an attempt to complete the project. A dormitory, la residencia, was built in 1979 from cement panels based on Soviet methods. Presumably, the high school was constructed at the same time since the designs and materials are very similar. Not surprisingly, neither Guillermoprieto or Loomis mention the high school building in their books. She was gone before it was built and the Porro-project structures were the focus of his work, but to me this ugly, unnoticed building is the key to what went wrong, and a guidepost for the Cubans as they reclaim their identity from the Soviets, and from us. Loomis understands its significance,

     With the adoption of Soviet-style conformity and centralized models, a chapter closed in the history of Cuban architecture. The search for an architectural cubanidad that would reflect an Afro-Hispanic, Caribbean, socialist society–– effectively came to an end. The National Arts Schools themselves were allowed to fall into various states of decay. Once objects of pride, they were now treated with indifference and/or embarrassment.

     The ENA’s humiliation marked the death of Cuban architecture as an art. After what happened to the Porro team, other architects read the tea leaves and fled the island, leaving architecture in the hands of constrained and unimaginative bureaucrats. The result is both predictable and portentous.
     To one side sits the haunted residencia, and on the other is our deliberately styleless, ever-so-utilitarian, high school, where you can look out over the campus and wonder at the conflicts that shaped it. The ENA remains as a monument to how badly things can go wrong, but it is also a reminder of an, as yet, unfulfilled vision of Cuba as strong and independent, in control of its own destiny. This is a vision the Cubans still hope to realize.
     That Cuba is emerging from under the restrictions of foreign influence is evident from the fact that the government is now investing in both the administration and infrastructure of the school. The ENA’s architectural reputation is slowly being resurrected and, while the government may not have wholly embraced the school, it is focusing resources into improving its programs and maintaining the campus. The architects, too, have been reconsidered. Both Porro and Garatti have been invited back to attend seminars and give lectures, while Gottardi has been asked to submit a plan for completion of his Dramatic Arts School although the project seems to have been shelved.
     Nevertheless, a walk through the campus is more heartening now than in the days when it lay in ruins. Today, the fences are mended and security guards man the gates. The lawns are mowed and some buildings have been painted while others are under renovation. Construction crews are putting in new sidewalks. It's as if the government is catching up with its artists, who quietly kept this vision of Cuban identity long enough for their society to recognize its value and reclaim what was almost lost.

     As for me, I hate the fact that the ENA, and the people who struggle within it, are still there, right now, and I’m no longer there to share it with them. Like a soldier whose war is over, I miss the adrenaline rush, replaying Cuba’s confrontations again and again in my mind. For me, the long-haired boy with the trumpet is still sitting under the tree, but his notes are lost in the cacophony of artists still seeking to find their voices, still trying to be heard.
     The idealistic artist is doomed to disappointment, betrayed by a finite talent in an infinite universe. We learn this only slowly and, for those who don’t quit, idealism is replaced with a pragmatic but quixotic understanding that the effort is as important as the result. When artists confront politicians we generally lose, but it is in the comprehension of what is at stake that we realize the importance of keeping up our end of the fight. For both American and Cuban artists, it is about the independence of spirit: on one side we tread water in a cold sea of indifference. On the other, they fight for space in the pressure cooker of social control.
     There is a survival-of-the-fittest aspect to art that depresses some and stimulates others. It tends to make me ornery. Last man standing wins has always been my motto, perhaps because I’m too pigheaded to consider other options and too unemployable to ever be a productive member of society. The people of America need me (or so I keep telling myself) if for no other reason than to make them feel good about the life-choices they’ve made. Like a court jester whose pantomimes parody the idiosyncrasies of the king, the artist reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of the society within which he lives. To neglect our artists makes them superfluous. If we can’t be bothered to hear what they say about us, we are ignoring ourselves as much as we are ignoring them. To suppress our artists makes them dangerous, not because they can hurt us but because we have hurt them, and ourselves as well.
     The defense of art should not be a partisan issue. There should be no competing perspectives from the Left or Right in our country, and no division between socialist and capitalist with our neighbors. Artists keep score for society. They reshape the stuff of our lives into portraits of who we are and where we are going. They are our watchdogs, our coal-mine canaries, our John the Baptists, warning us if doom or salvation is up ahead, lowering the price we pay for our mistakes by showing us our culpability, and giving us the hope that we can make things better. While it would be naive to think the Cuban government is loosening control over potentially dissenant art, it is, I believe, beginning to recognize its artists' contributions to its sense of self. Are we? Those who don’t value art are doomed to repeat it. You’d think we would have learned that by now.