Havana: Where the streets are paved with...

by Matthew Hammett Knott
January 9, 2012 12:02 PM
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You know that idiot who, reunited with his MacBook following a winter break in an exotic culture, feels moved to trot out all the homespun wisdom and shining insight he has gleaned from his glorious voyage? Well, I'm just back from two weeks in Cuba.

By way of disclaimer, I lived in Havana for six months a few years ago, which hopefully makes my musings on the island marginally less ill-informed than your average sunburnt gringo twat (more on her later…). But it seemed a healthy idea - in the absence of any actual resolutions - for my first blog post of the new year to be a vaguely contemplative one.

On my last morning in Havana I heard a woman shout "No, he didn't shit on me!" to a man on a balcony above. Thankfully, "he" referred to a nearby stray dog, while "me" stood metonymically for "my porch". Though I suppose the really thankful thing is bitch didn't shit.

Because Havana is caked in shit. It's the combination of the stray dogs and the Caribbean sun… and it's one of the realities that makes fetishising the "crumbling" colonial streets a little distasteful.

They're always "crumbling" in the guide books, and it's no lie. But it's that euphemistic sense of aesthetically pleasing decay that makes me queasy. Enter the sunburnt gringo twat who, as I was waiting for a slice of street pizza to arrive, I saw literally probe an old man's front window with her phalloid zoom lens to take snaps inside his house. I was tempted to ask if she was aware of Italo Calvino's conception of photography as rape. In the end (recall, the pizza) I contented myself with the thought that inside she's crumbling.

But let's turn the accusing lens on me for a moment. Last time I was in Cuba I was a student - this time, as I told everyone who asked, I was a filmmaker, however wet behind the ears. I noticed after a while that every time my career plans and aspirations were discussed, jokes were cracked along the lines of "when you're rich and famous"… this glamorous premiere, that house in Hollywood. Lucrative financial reward was assumed to be the bounty waiting at the zenith of my artistic aspirations.

You wouldn't crack that joke with a Cuban. Despite boasting a famously world-class cultural scene, no eminent Cuban artist in any field would expect their financial fortunes to rise in tandem with their artistic accomplishments unless their record or ticket sales extended to an international audience (in accordance with the revolutionary ideals, almost all state salaries remain at around £5-10 a month whether you're a prima ballerina, a heart surgeon or a street cleaner).

I spent a lot of time with a Cuban friend who is a young art critic and gallerist. He earns a salary as editor of an arts journal and works voluntarily for an organisation exhibiting young artists. His career ambitions are as lofty as any. But the salary he earns, he pays directly and entirely to his mother, as that is what is required to keep the engine running. Money is simply not one of the spoils of his art, nor is it promised as the reward for the honourable hours of unpaid toil of his youth.

I, however, can't deny that the trappings of wealth have always been a part of the elaborate fantasies I construct of my future life on a regular basis. That being so, who am I to claim they are as unimportant in the scheme of things as I would like to think? Without wishing to draw any rash conclusions (and notice, I haven't), I can't help thinking at this point of such well-heeled establishment figures as Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Alexander Payne, all of whose films this year bored me with their concerns. I can't imagine that when the man in the balcony above calls down to any of those directors, their response is "Yep, he shat on me again".

It's probably not worth speculating how their cinematic output might have differed if the putative scat bomber had emptied hardship's potty over their porches more regularly since their careers took off. So let me quit the navel gazing, and simply note how edifying it is, in a country where the streets are paved with something other than gold, yet the art scene remains as alive as it does in Cuba, to stop and think about that country's artists, what they're up to exactly, and why.

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