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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.