Cuban Aesthetics Under Socialism Part II

By Alex Marino, Staff Writer

Don’t miss Part I of this article, posted on Das Tor here.

How do we differentiate utilitarian value from aesthetic worth? The appeal to cultural sensitivities and subconscious desires that draws individuals into an institutionalized objective reality links this case study to Peter Berger’s theory, but the Cuban case is unique because the institution created is different than the appeal to commodification traditionally examined in Western culture. On paper the musical ideology expressed in revolutionary Cuba claims to be more concerned with cultural preservation than economic value. However, realistically, the creation of government organizations such as the Ministry of Culture are intended to promote a “dialectical relationship within musical production.” The dialectical relationship is an appeal to Cuban consciousness through a ‘degree of specific consecration,’ “the degree of recognition accorded by those who recognize no other criterion of legitimacy than recognition by those whom they recognize,” and a utilitarian value incentivizing artists to create masterful works while also maintaining a pro-revolutionary attitude (Finn 193). Cuban musicologists understand the necessity of this relationship, but the common man who feels his voice is represented through a musical expression will never understand why his heroes allow governmental institutionalization to silence his protest to adopt an objective reality alternative to the grassroots ideology he developed from.

Before the creation of the Ministry of Culture, there was a highly influential musical movement known as “Canción Protesta” (Protest Song), which was considered to be the voice of the people because it reflected true Cuban sentiments while also criticizing oppressive elements of the Castro regime. At the time, the leading musicians representing Canción Protesta, such as Silvio Rodriguez, had close connections with neighboring Latin American business and political elites. Therefore, Castro needed their influence and support to establish political and economic relations. He instituted the Ministry of Culture to compromise with and incentivize Cuban musicians but at the same time silenced their representation of the common man. As a result Canción Protesta became Nueva Trova, a musical style that dominated the domestic and regional music scene and was marketed as representing authentic Cuban sentiments.

Nueva Trova combines Cuban folkloric styles with American rock and popular music sounds. The socialist cultural policy justified authorizing contemporary Western tones on the basis that the delivery into Cuban society would re-characterize the music into an authentic Cuban interpretation. The overarching principles of Nueva Trova were to provide a generational voice to revolutionary discourse through socio-political lyrics, wage “war on banality and commercialism in song,” and create a “pan-Latin solidarity and opposition to North American imperialism” (Manuel 174). The Castro regime created the Executive Directorate of the Movement of the Nueva Trova Cubana along with the Ministry of Culture as an official organizational framework for the leading artists to operate and develop. However, as mentioned above, the governmental-aesthetics unification was a way for the revolutionary government to institutionalize the music industry and control the controversial sentiments produced by Canción Protesta artists and followers. Despite the feelings that the Nueva Trova institutions influenced a “centrality of culture” that preserved Cuban authenticity, many still believed that the transition undermined the freedom of expression Cubans felt through lyrical content. As a result, we now see the underground emergence of Novísima Trova from artists such as Carlos Varela. Information on the Novísima movement is scarce, but the lyrical content expressed provides a great insight into a Cuban consciousness crying out to redefine its objective reality.

"Nueva Trova" musician Carlos Varela
“Nueva Trova” musician Carlos Varela

According to Peter Berger, institutionalization becomes our objective reality primarily because a historical precedence is first established and then passed down generationally. It has become the norm to accept the socio-cultural standards of our environment and adopt attitudes and interests that fit into that pre-established mold. The result is a conformist society lacking unique cultural and social characteristics that operates a life focused on generating wealth and stability for the institution. I was recently discussing this concept with a friend who shares my conscious awareness of this social dilution, and I asked him how people justify sacrificing their dreams and ambitions for a predetermined life cycle that benefits a wealth system. His answer was simply that “it’s just easier to conform because when you step out of the box, life gets hard.” I thought about what it means for life to get hard; isn’t life always hard? Then I realized that struggling to satisfy the demands of the institution at the expense of our identities is the falsified “American dream” sold to us as our “objective reality,” and although less obvious on the Cuban side, the oppressive nature of the Castro regime aims to do the same as it forcefully silences the voice of anti-revolutionary sentiments through incentivized institutionalism. Quantity becomes more valuable than quality, and our cultural identity morphs into a system of commodification that transforms humans into social capital.

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