If there's a word that defines the cultural background of people native to the Caribbean, it would be "diverse." The islands have long been a focal point for outside interest, and these outsiders have left an indelible footprint on the development of the art forms coming out of the region. The many resident cultures spent years extricating themselves from nonnative artistic sensibilities in an effort to distinguish their own artistic identity.
A locus for spices, sugar and slavery, the islands of the Caribbean have been the purview of foreign powers -- Spanish, French, English -- and their victims, namely, Africa, since the 1500s. Art forms evolving from the ruling class were necessarily European and American in nature, while African artistic sensibilities and traditions naturally pervaded the nonruling majority. Until the turn of the 20th century, these arts took a religious and cultural form, rather than "ars gratia artis": art for art's sake.
Expressed during carnival, dance is the premiere performing art coming out of the Caribbean. Meringue, mambo, tango, salsa, rumba and lumbada, with their accompanying Latin beats, were all born in these islands and exported to the rest of the world, often via African American culture; mambo, for instance, began in 1900s Havana but found its way into the United States through Harlem. Classical dance, like ballet, also has a place among dance Caribbean dance troupes.
Unlike dance or music, which could be practiced by anyone with access to an instrument or a dance floor, visual arts were a leisure pursuit in a region where the people had little or no leisure time. As painting and sculpture broke away from staid European aesthetics, they became more heavily indebted to African influence. Painted figures may be characteristically flat, as though created as textiles, and sculpture often draws form from the integration of Christianity and traditional African religions.
Poetry and Prose
The indigenous people of the Caribbean, as well as those who made the region their home after being brought there as slaves, had no written language. Therefore, it wasn't until the 20th century that Caribbean authors began carving out an authentic Caribbean voice in literature, one that didn't merely imitate the voice of the colonialists. Authors in French- and Spanish-influenced countries were the first to connect the black populations of the region through writing. It wasn't until after World War II that this new voice spread to the British West Indies.