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According to the Mexico-based Cuban curator Osvaldo Sánchez, kitsch is a constant trope in the visual culture and art of Cuba. His text traces the evolution and diverse historical reiterations of kitsch on the island, which leads him to parody the slogan of the Cuban Communist Party in his essay’s title: “The styles die… Kitsch is immortal.” Sánchez traces the roots of kitsch to the Baroque carnival, which was capable of establishing a popular, anti-hegemonic discourse. The tropical kitsch of the 1950s—embodied by baseball, boxing, rumba, cocktails, and the nightlife of Havana—manifested neocolonial frustrations of the Cuban petit bourgeoisie aspiring to the society of consumption. Following the Cuban Revolution, however, kitsch became a deconstructive, anti-normative discourse of the lower, disenfranchised classes of the society. As such, it aimed its critical edge against all hegemonic institutions, including the revolution itself. Hence, over the decades, it evolved from being the language of the neocolonial North American domination to tactics of popular resistance and survival. The work of the Cuban artists of the 1980s—Gory López Marín, Rubén Torres Llorca, Leandro Soto, Flavio Garciandía, and Tonel (Antonio Eligio Fernández), among many—appropriated this latter language of the poor, handmade, domestic, anti-institutional kitsch. For Sánchez, the generation of the 1980s resorted to kitsch in order to counter the ongoing dogmatization of art and institutionalization of everyday life under the revolution, as well as to undermine the exhausted revolutionary slogans. Sánchez concludes by claiming that throughout history kitsch has served as a critical modus operandi, or attitude, working against the ossified ideologies materialized in the artistic styles.
Originally written shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this essay by the Havana-born curator Osvaldo Sánchez (born 1958) was first published in the catalogue Art from Latin America: La cita transcultural (Sydney, Australia: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1992), which accompanied the 1992 Sydney Biennial. Subsequently, Sánchez reworked it for the book Nosotros, los ma´s infieles: narraciones cri´ticas sobre el arte cubano (1993–2005) [Andrés Isaac Santana, ed. (Murcia, Spain: Centro de Documentación y Estudios Avanzados de Arte Contemporáneo, 2007), 129–140], the version that is being reproduced here.Sánchez’s essay appears, at first glance, to attend to a larger historical concern of the impact of popular aesthetics and kitsch on the so-called high art—the issue prominent both in Cuban and Latin American art criticism in the 1980s and 1990s. However, behind a veil of historicism, his text is a good example of the assessment of the internationally successful generation of the 1980s Cuban artists by an exiled Cuban intellectual disillusioned with the promises of the Cuban Revolution. Sánchez left the island in 1990 and, just like many other Cubans, settled in Mexico City, leading eventually such institutions as the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Rufino Tamayo and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Carrillo Gil. The generation of the Cuban artists that emerged in the 1980s, often collectively known as the New Cuban Art, achieved an unprecedented level of the international institutional and commercial success. Simultaneously, during the same decade, the Havana Biennial established itself as an important, anti-hegemonic nexus of debate and exchange for the artists of the so-called Global South. Hence, the transformations and the interpretation of the Cuban art scene at the end of and following the Cold War became a contentious political and artistic issue.