Che Guevara’s Revolution in Pop Culture
On the 9th of October 1967 Che Guevara, an Argentinian Marxist revolutionary, and allegedly one of the most famous revolutionaries in the world, was executed. The execution took place in a little Bolivian village, La Higuera, which since then has become a pilgrimage destination for numerous Che Guevara followers. The use of the word ‘pilgrimage’ is not coincidental. In fact, it connotes a condensed summary of Che Guevara’s cult that occurred after his death.
Che’s ideological believes and the course of action he had taken against ‘imperialist hyenas’, had won him a significant acclaim among the masses of the world as well as the cultural elite. For example, “the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called him ‘the most perfect man of his time’; others have seen in him the same qualities of many of the most outstanding figures of history. His forerunners would have to include such ‘good men’ as Francis of Assisi, Bartolomé de las Casas and Albert Schweitzer. Many in Latin America consider him one of the ‘martyrs of the two Americas’, ranking him among the freedom fighters Hidalgo, Morelos, Bolívar, San Martin, Zapata and Sandino… Europeans have been no less fulsome in their tributes, contributing to the Che myth by styling him a ‘red Robin Hood’, a ‘Don Quixote of Communism’, a ‘new Garibaldi’, a ‘Marxist Saint-Just’ or a ‘Cid Campreador of the wretched of the earth’.” (Frank Niess, Che Guevara)
The continuous apotheosis of Che’s revolutionary persona has been weaved throughout public consciousness in many different ways. One of the most surprising phenomena, for instance, is the presence of his image in popular culture. More than a symbol of the communist revolution, Che’s image has become a kind of a fashion accessory, contributing to what the man himself stood so strongly against – the consumerist, capitalist machine.
“Pop’s depersonalization and standardization simplified Che’s image and helped align him with the masses, at the same time certifying his image as everyman. Pop’s aesthetic pushed towards absolutely unambiguous and uninflected meaning and repeatability. Warholian Pop deals with outlines and surfaces rather than full chiaroscuro. This reduction of the real world provided the perfect vehicle for distancing the image from the complexities and ambiguities of actual life and the reduction of the political into stereotype. Che lives in these images as an ideal abstraction.” (Jonathan Green, UCR Museum of Photography director).
Hence, Che’s image has been present in many areas of popular culture. It has been put on a variety of merchandise: T-shirts, mugs, posters, lighters, even underwear or baby bodysuits; his life story has been depicted in several films (Che! (1969), El Che: Investigating a Legend (1998), The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), Che (2008)); it has also become a reoccurring theme in art, music and literature. All of it, under the very loosely defined slogan of ‘revolutionary spirit’. Yet, very few are aware that Che is known as ‘the butcher of La Cabaña prison’, where he oversaw an execution of up to several hundred people. Very few are aware that thousands of men and boys were executed in the 1960s under his leadership. The man’s ambition was in fact to become a ‘killing machine’, as mentioned in his diaries, where he also goes into detail about shooting people in the head. It is also not a common knowledge that Che was fiercely homophobic. Therefore, it is rather ironic that among Che’s followers, there are people who use his image to support their own liberal ideas, without even realizing that Che had a very rigid and moralistic view point on social order and stood against all that is liberal. As a result, this strand of political and historical unawareness, or simply ignorance, has made of Che’s image a rhetorically empty logo. On the other hand this example gives us a lesson on the dangers of popular culture and its impact on social consciousness.