Emilia Duno

Jameson in the Tropics: Post Modernism in Cuba

Cuba is currently experiencing a transitional period. Five years ago, tourists walking the street of Havana was an infinitely different experience. All of the restaurants, shops, and vendors that line every street did not exist. In all of these new tourist attractions exist another evolving aspect of Cuba – tourist art. Art that is specifically being geared towards the ever growing hoards of travelers visiting the island. When examining this new type of art, Fredrick Jameson’s text, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, becomes quite helpful. His descriptions of postmodernism and its identifiers, specifically depthlessness, a disconnect from history, and pastiche, are all present in this new type of art. This complicates Jameson’s definition, as Cuba is certainly not in a late-capitalist context, but rather is a primarily socialist country with pockets of market economies, which raises the question – is there more than one type of postmodernism altered by the markets that they exist within?

Figure 1.

In 2008 Castro announced individuals were permitted to apply for government licenses that would give them permission to work over 201 jobs all in the private sector. These jobs include “habaneras,” women posing in colonial attire (Figure 1), taxi drivers and the vendors of tourist goods, such as jewelry, art and other ornaments. This announcement came as larger numbers of tourists began traveling to Cuba looking for a tropical destination. While traveling, many of these tourists look to not only consume the products that these individuals now working in the private sector are providing but also to consume the culture. For this reason Cuban culture has been commodified and packaged in tourist goods for their consumption. Many of these goods present Cuba in a highly stereotypical light emphasizing the tropical, sensual and also indigenous. Tourist-aimed art has been particularly impacted by this process of commodification. When walking the streets of Havana Vieja, visitors are almost overwhelmed by the amount of vendors lining the streets – all of them selling old books, paintings and trinkets representing this stereotypical image of Cuban-ness. The iconography of all of them is relatively consistent and the three most common figures are that of the coffee pot, the old car and fruit – especially the papaya. In his book, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson offers an analysis and critique of postmodernism and the postmodern condition. He begins with a distinction, originally made by the Marxist economist, Ernest Mandel, of the three stages of capitalism. The first stage is the market economy stage in which economic activity is limited to the national borders. The second stage is the monopoly or imperialism stage, in which the economy expands beyond the borders, and in the third stage, the late-capitalist stage, national borders become irrelevant. Within the third stage, he claims, postmodernism develops.

Figure 2.
Cuban Women with Cigars

His then sets out to define what exactly is postmodernism and how can it be identified. Three of the important characteristics he outlines are depthlessness, a disconnect from history, and pastiche. The depthlessness, he argues, comes from a high capitalist society’s handling of cultural production where art is integrated into commodity production. This leaves postmodern art with a lack of depth that is perfectly captured by Andy Warhol’s piece, Diamond Dusted Shoes. While Andy Warhol is well known for his commentary of the commercialization of culture it is not hermeneutic. It simply points to a condition while making no comment on whether this condition is positive or negative. This same depthlessness that he identifies in late-capitalist postmodern art can also be found in much of the tourist art in Cuba. While much of it is apolitical in nature entirely, the political commentary that this type of Cuban art does sometimes carry is two dimensional in the same way. This can be seen in Figure 2, which offers no commentary on conditions or daily hardships that Afro-Cuban women face but rather simply depicts a stereotypical image of a highly sexualized dark skinned woman in colonial attire smoking a cigar. Jameson then continues on to explain the postmodern condition as a result of a disconnect from history. This break comes from the postmodern notions of deconstructed history. Based on these theories of deconstruction, people have become accustomed to the notion of history as non-linear as well as a narrative construct. This caused the “subject [to lose] his active ability to create a sense of continuity between past and future and to organize his temporal existence into one coherent experience. This reduces his cultural production abilities to nothing but random and eclectic ‘piles of fragments’” (Cultural Reader). These piles and fragments are then packaged and commodified and reinterpreted and reenter society through Jameson’s third characteristic of postmodernism: Pastiche. Pastiche has been described as “neither copy nor original” (Pastiche). It is essentially the cannibalization of culture and appropriation of forms, figures and style into culture. The cannibalization often results in stereotypical representations of the past and commodified pockets of history. These notions of pastiche and disconnect from history can also be found in the tourist art sold in Cuba. While much of the art is dedicated to or represents the ideals of the revolution and Cuban history they are presented in an incredibly idealistic and commodified fashion. In these markets where the art and other tourist products are sold, much of the things sold are aestheticized and packaged images of the revolution. While these images are not always historically accurate, they very much appeal to the American or European perspective of Cuba as a tropical and child-like paradise — a notion that is epitomized in Figure 3: Castro Coconut Head.

Figure 3.
Castro Cocounut Head

This depthless, historically disconnected and pastiche art in Cuba challenges Jameson’s theory of postmodernism as the culture of late capitalism. If one refers to the Ernest Mandel’s three stages of capitalism that Jameson quotes at the beginning of his book, Cuba would most likely fall somewhere in between the first and second stages — still mainly functioning within the national borders but moving beyond them in some industries. This raises the question: how did this postmodern art appear in a country in the early stages of capitalism. To answer this question I propose that Jameson’s theory be altered slightly. Postmodernism is not related to the most advanced stages of capitalism but rather the existence of markets at all. While his theory connects these conditions to late-capitalism, their existence is not impossible outside this context. While in Cuba’s case this art emerged in a capitalist pocket of a socialist country, historically what Jameson describes as postmodern art has existed in other contexts as well. In 1949 the Soviet Bloc formed an economic organization called COMECON, or the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Its purpose was to “exchange economic experiences, extend technical aid to one another, and to render mutual assistance with respect to raw materials, foodstuffs, machines, equipment, etc." (Appendix B). While what was primarily exchanged in this market was raw materials and oil, there was also a large exchange of ornaments and home decorations. This art was highly mass-produced and embodies all of Jameson’s identifiers of postmodernism, but again occurred outside of the late-capitalist context that Jameson claims to be the birthplace of postmodernism. While the aesthetic of these pieces are all quite distinct the qualities that Jameson uses to identify postmodernist art are all present. This raises the question: is it possible for there to be more than one type of postmodernism? Could postmodernism exist in contexts outside of the late-capitalist stage in which Jameson claims it exists and be influenced by the knowledge of that particular context? I will return to Cuba to answer this question. It is clear when examining the kitschy tourist art that I am defending as postmodern in relation to, for example, Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dusted Shoes, that there is a big difference between American postmodernism and, if it exists, a semi-socialist Caribbean postmodernism. While they both exist in their own respective markets, the markets themselves are quite different and deeply affect the way in which the qualities of postmodernism manifest. In the case of Warhol’s shoes, the context is exactly what Jameson describes in his examination of postmodernism in a late-capitalist market. But in the case of the Cuban tourist art, the market is completely different. Much like the high art world, these tourist goods are sold in little capitalist pockets within a greater socialist context. These pockets are prime examples of the Cuban term “resolver” – a Spanish term that means, “to find a way.” Many Cubans embrace this term as a way of life and it has been accepted as an expression of “Cubanidad.” In a quickly liberalizing economy, the sale of tourist art is a way of “resolviendo” for many Cubans. It allows them to enter the private sector, gain access to the CUC (the Cuban Convertible Peso), and in a sense negotiate their identity as Cubans. While the notions of “Cubanidad” that are sold are highly simplified and eroticized, they are made on the terms of the Cubans making the art and selling it for what they decide is appropriate. So unlike postmodern art created in a late-capitalist context, I claim that expressions of postmodernism that exist in Cuba are appropriating the language of the late-capitalist postmodernism as a way of “resolviendo,” resulting in a more self-aware variety of postmodernism. Rather than existing as a product of a market, it is responding to the market. While Jameson’s theory of postmodernism as the culture of late-capitalism does appropriately define postmodernism within that specific context, it fails to consider the existence of other types of postmodernism in other contexts. The existence of postmodern tourist art in Cuba provides an example of how the types of markets, which I claim are the true birthplace of postmodernism, affect how postmodern art forms in different contexts.
Works Cited
"Appendix B -- Germany (East)." Library of Congress / Federal Research Division. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. "Fredric Jameson – Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism." : Fredric Jameson / Postmodernism: Depthlessness. The Cultural Reader, 11 May 2011. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. Hoesterey, Ingeborg. Pastiche: Cultural Memory in Art, Film, Literature. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001. Print. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. Print.


By day Emilia Duno is an art history student at Rice University with a focus in modern and contemporary Latin American art. By night she moonlights as a dumpster in a rainy alley. Emilia can’t come to the phone right now, but if you leave her a message with your name, number, she’ll get back to you as soon as possible. *beep*