Community Arts in Cuba

The discussion about art in the schools in America seems especially fruitless. Yes, people admit, art classes encourage creativity (such a novel idea!), and yes, student musicians perform better in academic classes. But until someone devises a No Artist Left Behind Assessment to rate schools according to artistic attainment and to punish teachers for failing to produce artistic genius, art will continue to be shortchanged. After all, modern education exists—so saieth Governor Walker in Wisconsin—to produce workers. That is the function of education. Art is a pastime, a craft, a hobby. Trainable professionals are few and, essentially, expendable except as a means to get tourists into hotels and high-end restaurants. Too sober a view?

In Cuba, both in Havana and in the countryside, we encountered a culture of Community Arts which tutors the young, cements the relationship between generations, rebuilds neighborhoods, points a way out of poverty, enhances a local and national spirit, and enriches education on every level.

Consider La Tanque, a community arts center in a rather poor hillside neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana. The Tank is an immense water tank that once served the steam trains at the bottom of the hill. The Steam Age evaporated, and the tank fell into disuse. It became a garbage dump and remained so until community activists decided to clean up the village, empty the tank, and re-purpose the collapsing structure. Many truckloads of garbage were removed, and, somehow, a three-story collection of arts studios emerged from the rubble. Now, every day after school children come for lessons in dance, music, theatre, painting, sculpture, film and whatever else comes to mind. The center supports itself by selling art work; the students develop sufficiently to gain admission to the arts university; the adults teach and hone their own skills.

Back in town, you can walk along the Prado, the mile-long pedestrian boulevard that separates two busy roadways and gives a spacious view to the parti-colored apartment buildings that line the street. The Prado is the promenade where you wish to be seen in your Sunday finery as you stroll from the colonial era hotels up to the government buildings. It is also an outdoor market: for the first time in decades, someone has set up shop to sell real estate; fruit and ice cream vendors jostle each other; the drivers of the 1950s Buicks and Oldsmobiles promise a return to a divine age of motoring. Painters sell works even as they create new ones on sunlit, oil-damp canvases. And their young protégés sit on stools at their masters’ feet, copying, doing exercises, learning perspective and color theory, trying to discipline their younger brothers and sisters whose portraits they have been instructed to draw.

Such a fine place.

But so is the Coincidence Farm out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve mentioned it elsewhere in these posts, but a reminder is not out of order. Once upon a time a farmer married a ceramicist. He runs the fruit plantation; she runs a cooperative ceramics studio. The landscape becomes art and the art seems to flourish, growing from and into the landscape.






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