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Public Culture 16.1 (2004) 1-29

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Copyrighting Che:
Art and Authorship under Cuban Late Socialism

Ariana Hernández-Reguant

Visitors to Havana are dwarfed by Ernesto Che Guevara's monumental face presiding over Revolution Square. A principal icon of the Cuban revolution and anticolonial movements worldwide, Che Guevara has been the object of state worship since his death in 1967. So when Tomás Esson, a young graduate of Havana's prestigious Art Institute, scandalized the public in 1988 with an exhibit featuring an image of Che associated with sexual and scatological imagery, the Ministry of Culture quickly closed down the show.1 In the words of one onlooker, the offending artwork depicted Che looking at "figures doing 'things'! Fornicating! People with horns! And one was sticking his horn up someone else's ass! And in the middle of that there were little Cuban flags! And pioneros climbing a cannon that was in fact a phallus!" (Garcia 1999).2 Visitors were puzzled to see at a state gallery what appeared to be blasphemy. And to no one's surprise, the exhibit lasted only one day. Allegedly, it was the minister of culture himself, Armando Hart, who asked the artist to close it down. This incident marked the boundaries of Cuba's version of perestroika, a period of ideological opening and generational renewal in the Communist Party that brought about a thriving youth culture and unprecedented political humor. Barely two years later, perestroika, [End Page 1] like the entire Soviet bloc, was a thing of the past, and Tomás Esson had moved to Miami. Some of his controversial paintings, however, remained in Cuba, since the government declared them to be "cultural patrimony of the Cuban nation" and therefore not permitted to leave the national territory (Plagens and Katel 1992).

As Cuba moved to salvage its economy from the deep crisis caused by the loss of its socialist trading partners, much of the state infrastructure of cultural production and distribution was turned into a network of for-profit semiautonomous enterprises. The Cuban culture industries became a sort of "border zone" (Sassen 2000), "zone of contact" (Lomnitz 2001), or "zone of graduated citizenship" (Ong 1999) structured by the interests of a new array of stakeholders, both state and corporate. Within these zones, new social relations developed around the clash of socialist ethics and capitalist practices, along with new forms to imagine, mediate, and contest ideas of identification and community. On the whole, the inscription of cultural production, patterns of leisure, and approaches to labor and community within transnational circuits of mass culture and entertainment fostered alternative discourses and forms of social practice. This dynamic cultural formation defines a moment that, following Alexei Yurchak (1997), I refer to as "late socialism." And while the Communist Party still sought to reassert its command over artistic imaginaries and public discourses at home through ideological persuasion, capitalist mechanisms of control over cultural products extended the reach of patrimonial rights well beyond national jurisdiction. That is, to consider a cultural product, such as any depiction of Ernesto Che Guevara, as collective patrimony could be an arbitrary decision resting on state-appointed guardians of national ideology. But now, in addition, the control over such images was exerted through a seemingly neutral, internationally binding juridical resolution made on the basis of authorship. An international lawsuit pursued by a Cuban photographer in 1999, over the use and commerce of a picture of Che Guevara that he took in 1960 for a government newspaper, will exemplify the shift in notions of individualism, labor, and property occurring in Cuba throughout the 1990s.

Formerly valued according to socialist notions of aesthetic quality, cultural relevance, and ideological significance in the postperestroika period—known as the Special Period in Times of Peace—both creative labor and the cultural product became valued in relation to agents and processes outside the socialist state. This resulted in the separation of two distinct labor regimes, that is, in the differentiation between cultural and manual labor that was very much rejected under socialism but stands at the core of...


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Archived 2004
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