Duality at Duke: Robert E. Lee statue? Has to go. Glorified Che image? Cool art.

This is a long read but an important issue I wanted to handle thoroughly, so bear with me and dig in.

A recent post published a letter of complaint from the Cuban American Bar Association (CABA) to Duke University in North Carolina over the uncritical use of a hyped-up Che Guevara image (incorporating his ubiquitous photo) in a major five-month exhibition at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art.

The show, Pop América, 1965-1975, focuses on pop art by “Latino/a” artists in Latin countries and the US during that decade. Its originator and chief organizer is a Duke professor, Esther Leah Gabara, whose field is Latin American art, literature and culture. Her parents immigrated to the US, but I do not know from where; she was educated chiefly at Stanford. A video (under 2 minutes) of her introducing the show is here.

The item in question is a 1968 propaganda poster from the “Organization for Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America,” a Castro outfit created to promote radical socialism in the third world (its logo at the poster’s lower right is a globe over an arm gripping a rifle). Note that Che as “the heroic guerilla fighter” is superimposed on a map of Latin America, with obvious implications. The poster was designed by Cuban artist Elena Serrano (1933-94), who later moved to and died in Miami.

This is not the only work featuring Che in this exhibition. There are three others, two of which can be seen or glimpsed here and here; the third is a hip, trippy image of Che and fellow guerrillero Camilo Cienfuegos. All three project the popular image of Che as revolutionary hero. We are, of course, dealing with Latino and Castro-Cuban art, and even now Che (i.e., his myth) remains a lionized and fashionably “progressive” figure.

CABA’s letter to Duke’s President Price speaks for itself, but the facts can be ignored or dismissed, especially when that is the norm. The offended parties, Cuban-Americans, are not a PC minority, so they get no special consideration—unlike, say, African-Americans. Hence, insulting Cubans is pretty much safe as houses. Besides, one can argue the Che poster is simply an art work or historical artifact, and that exhibiting it in a museum does not constitute a political endorsement. However, Professor Gabara has said We’re all political beings. It’s not like there’s “political” and “neutral.”

As the CABA letter points out, there is a double standard, to which anti-Castro Cubans are über-sensitive given how long and how often it’s been used against them. A classic, tell-tale example is the invariable reference to Batista’s rule as a dictatorship while not using that term for Castro’s–and that occurs in the official catalogue for this exhibition (which also refers to Che’s assassination in Bolivia with no mention of his numerous comparable killings). Is there anything in this show glorifying Chile’s Pinochet, for instance? Nothing of the sort. But let’s get closer to home, or closer to Duke, with Robert E. Lee.

A statue of the Confederate general had stood by the entrance to Duke’s Gothic Chapel since 1932. In 2017, following violent clashes in Charlottesville, VA over removing another Lee statue, the one at Duke came under attack and was removed by order of President Price “to express the deep and abiding values of our university.” It was also decided to leave the statue’s niche empty, as seen in the photo above. Could it not be argued that the statue was a historical artifact, and that leaving it where it stood for 85 years did not constitute an endorsement of Confederate values? You get the idea.

This is not about what Duke should or should not do with a statue of a Confederate hero, but about what it DID do, and how that contrasts with its featuring essentially hagiographic imagery of a perverse, bloodthirsty fanatic and aggressive promoter of totalitarian tyranny, whose legacy is dystopian nightmares like Cuba’s, Venezuela’s and Nicaragua’s. Does the Nasher Museum exhibition present a full and balanced picture including the real as well as the mythical Che, in keeping with Duke’s obligation to educate and its “deep and abiding values”? That is the question.

The answer is disappointing, to put it mildly. The show’s catalogue, a 215-page book with extensive essays, calls Che “the ultimate Pop icon” and acknowledges the leftist, political and propaganda character of Che images, but never refutes or questions the Che myth, thus implicitly accepting it at face value. Nothing is said against Che or his goals, methods or effects. This makes it virtually certain the same is true of the physical museum exhibition, including wall text and plaques for individual objects. To top it all off, the Che images are in a section of the show titled “Liberating América.” Whether such grotesque irony escaped those involved or simply did not bother them, it is deeply offensive, at least to those he victimized.

Should Duke need a clue, Cubans who lost their country and saw it ruined by communist “liberation” do not think at all like Bernie Sanders or Bill de Blasio. They are not even remotely impressed by alien intellectuals like Sartre or Sontag drooling over Che or the Castro revolution. It defies belief that anyone could fail to understand that by now, but I expect the problem is not cluelessness but indifference—or indolence in the Spanish sense, porque no les duele. So please, do not talk to Cubans about your “deep and abiding values.” If you will not show them respect, at least do not insult their intelligence.

2 thoughts on “Duality at Duke: Robert E. Lee statue? Has to go. Glorified Che image? Cool art.”

  1. This show was a chance to address the Che myth for what it is: propaganda based on distortion and subversion of the truth to promote an ultimately perverse and noxious ideology. Anyone who condones and promotes a totalitarian system (as Che did with both Castro’s and Mao’s) is an instrument of evil, period—regardless of intent or personal conviction. Thus, any exaltation or glorification of such a person is not only unjustified but inherently wrong, not to mention dangerous..

    The Che items in this exhibition are all such propaganda, even if their makers believed in it. That should have been challenged, and evidently it was not. Maybe those involved also believe in it, or maybe they dare not risk confronting a PC sacred cow, which could entail adverse career consequences. This is academia, after all, and the whole “Latin” studies field appears to be clearly politicized and resolutely leftist. I understand the situation, but that doesn’t mean I respect it, let alone sympathize with it.

    Well, as far as I know, Professor Gabara’s background is not Cuban. Thank goodness for small favors.

  2. Apparently, the relevant people at Duke want or expect to have it both ways, but nobody can, not really, even though it may be easy to get away with it–a very frequent occurrence in matters concerning Cuba. Ultimately, such duality, to put it that way, discredits and undermines credibility, not to say respectability.

    Again, this is an extremely common scenario, especially with anything involving “Che,” so Duke is definitely not the first or even remotely the only party to do this sort of number, and it won’t be the last. After so much of this for so long, from seemingly every quarter, one is tempted to just shut it out and ignore it, but the display of righteousness over the Lee statue, particularly leaving the niche empty as continual and potentially perpetual virtue-signaling, was just too much to overlook.

    We may be weary after 60 years of being a vox clamantis in deserto, but maybe the longer Cuba remains what Che sought and wanted for it, and certainly helped to bring about, the louder and more insistently we need to proclaim and demand the truth.

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