SILLY SEASON? OR ROAD TO ENLIGHTENMENT? / SIONIL JOSE: IT AIN'T ART

MANILA, AUGUST 16, 2011 ( STAR)
KRIPOTKIN By Alfred A. Yuson (Photo is loading... Detail from Mideo Cruz’s “Poleteismo”)

It just had to happen. One view has it thus: “Is there no end to the fun?” This was practically ensured when Rep. Imelda R. Marcos stepped into the edifice she had set up over four decades ago, the media predictably in tow, and made her usual pronouncements.

“Obscene,” she said of Mideo M. Cruz’s work “Poleteismo.” “We must remember,” she went on, “art comes from the word ‘heart,’ and heart is where the spirit of God resides.”

That’s what I heard on the TV news. The quotes attributed to her via online reportage were as characteristic.

“After seeing the exhibit I was really shocked because it was not only ugly, it was not true, it was not at all beautiful because there were statues and pictures of saints and Christ with horns and with his penis up and it was really a desecration of a spiritual symbol for Catholics.”

One has no recourse but to wonder: Would it have made a difference if the penis weren’t on the up and up?

But wait, there’s more: “In fact, even (former) President Marcos had (been depicted with) several penises. But this is the CCP, the sanctuary of the Filipino spirit and a monument of the Filipino soul. This is not at all right. This is ugly and, above all, a desecration of a sacred symbol.”

What if the reporters hadn’t supplied the parenthesized fillers? Ah, then it wouldn’t be the Philippines, fount of fun and funny-ness.

But it was poor timing, at the very least and for starters, for the CCP Board to decide to pull the plug on the entire “Kulo” exhibit. This was announced the next day, while Rep. Amado Bagatsing started the bandwagon ball rolling in Congress with a privilege speech, soon followed by Rep. Marcos expectedly taking credit for the controversial show’s closure.

Then the President, asked by media covering an out-of-town activity, just had to say his own piece on the matter. By then, “concerned” artists were already up in arms over the apparent triumph of religious zealots, the curtailment of freedom of expression, the censorship of art.

Most everyone and his/her hairdresser have weighed in on the issue. The media have been blamed, quite wrongly to my mind. The moralists. The CCP board. Mideo himself. The curator. The CCP visual arts head, who had no choice but to honorably resign her post. Senators have joined the fray, asked for resignations, and predictably threatened budget cuts. Most artists have decried the score: Moral Terrorists 1, Artists for Freedom 0.

Some artists have noted that what Mideo did was over-the-top provocative in the first place, a KSP (kulang sa pansin) gambit. Others lament that (other) outstanding works in the group exhibit were overlooked owing to the imbroglio. (Yes, Bogie Tence Ruiz’s, in particular.)

Among the welter of voices, I have found those of Imelda Cajipe Endaya, Prof. Flaudette May Datuin, and Atty. Raul Pangalangan as the most cogent, salient, sober and sane. They represent that end of the gamut that balances the other end, which is laughing its head off over yet another “silly season.”

BTW, that particular extreme I also happen to abide by, given what may be termed as my yet-hippie faith in astrological proceedings. CCP insider Ed Cabagnot (he whose agenda-less frame of mind allows him to speak with humor and authority) had warned about Mercury in Retrograde for much of August, which also happens to be the Month of the Hungry Ghosts.

Remember last year’s l’affaire Luneta, and the firestorm it spawned after Hong Kong tourists were massacred, chiefly owing to a derailment of communication? Witness recently the awful, incomprehensible riots in cities in the UK.

Ina-agosto lang nga ba tayong muli? To those who may now hoot at possible superstition that seems to inform my own personal reckoning of the universe, I say: But a man’s gotta believe in something.

And so I believe, too, in the following: That it was unfortunate for the CCP board to “capitulate” on the matter. It should have held fast, kasi andyan na ’yan. I believe that CCP executives aren’t to blame for having “allowed” any art exhibit that may upset other people, even many other people. Administrators need not always know what is going on below them; that is why there is delegation of responsibility to area heads and curators.

And I believe my lifelong friend Emily Abrera, CCP chair, when she says their decision had been made the night before President P-Noy rang up to voice his own concerns, thus belying the speculation that the backward step came on orders from the top.

But I also believe that the CCP board should not have caved in, even in the face of physical threats, and should have stood fast and retained its support for the curator, the visual arts head, and the artist involved. Because “nandyan na ’yan,” and anything that appears to be a backtrack will then spawn an outcry from our very own constituency, art dabblers and moralists go hang.

I believe that P-Noy said what he said because that is what he rightly felt, coming from a conservative family and background. And not simply because he has to choose his battles, reserve his strength for that tiff with the Church and the busybodies over Reproductive Rights /Responsible Parenthood.

I believe that the legislators have every right to decry what was reported to have shocked many Catholics (among them some of my friends in Cebu and elsewhere who aren’t zealots). But these legislators can also take the higher ground by not automatically threatening to wield their budget-cut weapon. They should instead seek to find out first how and why everything happened — even if it does not involve millions in taxpayers’ money that went into the purchase of second-hand choppers at first-hand prices.

I believe that the apparently rabid Atty. Jo Imbong and her cohorts are needlessly taking their battle too far, by going on with their court suit. But then again, it might all be to the good, in the sense that we might see how a hopefully enlightened judiciary would rule on whether there still exists such a horrible monster as “blasphemy” in this millennium.

I believe that Atty. Raul C. Pangalangan, former dean of UP Law, wrote the best opinion on the issue, taking it apart, point by point, as fallacies, and citing wizened jurisprudence that basically expands on the more familiar quote from Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

I believe that the artist Mideo M. Cruz overstepped the bounds of cultural sensitivity, never mind the religious and the supposedly moral. But I also believe him when he says that the contextual entirety of his work should be read and appreciated (or rejected) as an exploration of our own societal syndromes, and not simply dismissed as outright provocation or “pambabastos,” let alone quickly, insensately adjudged as blasphemy.

I may not cotton to this particular artwork of his, and heaven knows (!) that, much as I belong to a non-prophet organization, I wouldn’t enjoy hanging it on any wall. But he created it, as art, and it passed the criteria set by the show curator and the CCP visual arts head, and it was placed there on exhibit, not attracting too many people until the whole shebang started being blown up, metaphorically speaking. Nandyan na ’yan; pinabayaan na lang sana.

Now the firestorm. But this, too, shall pass. Eventually we will all look back at this silly season as yet another milestone in our portage through countless contretemps of the spirit in all its invaluable forms and modes. Eventually we might thank the CBCP and the likes of Atty. Imbong for advancing our state of awareness and discernment of the bounds of so-called faith, especially of that garden variety called organized religion.

Eventually we can thank politicians and artists alike for helping us get closer to a level of academic and aesthetic enlightenment.

We are still inchoate, in the original, legal, and even misused sense. Our nascent yet imminently maturing society is yet developing a national framework and mindset that will ultimately exalt the true, the good and the beautiful.

The CCP Jesus Christ exhibit: It ain't art

HINDSIGHT By F Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) Updated August 15, 2011 12:00 AM Comments (22) View comments

The artist who set up that controversial Jesus Christ exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) the other week must be grinning and enjoying all that brouhaha that has made him the central object of attention in the last few days. With that single exhibition, he also brought to the fore one of the most interesting discussions about art, religion, public taste and democracy — meaning the constitutional right to freedom of expression. All this is, of course, very healthy and very good for Filipinos.

Now, let me contribute my two pesos worth in this melee. Bear in mind, I am an octogenarian. I have seen almost every major art museum in the world. I operated one of the earliest art galleries in Manila, Solidaridad, from 1967 to 1977, with the intention of giving our art a Filipino and an Asian face. I am also a novelist, and, as we all know, literature is the noblest of the arts. I am enumerating these not just to establish my bonafides but to show that I know whereof I speak.

The exhibit should not have been shown at the CCP. If submitted to my old gallery, I would have rejected it. It is not — I repeat — it is not art! It is an immature and juvenile attempt at caricature. I have not seen the exhibit itself but I have seen pictures of it and they are enough to convince me of the validity of my conclusion.

First, what is art? I go by this simple definition: Being an artist myself although I work with words not with the brush — if I can do it, it is not art. If I were to do the Jesus Christ commentary in oil, I would have used imagination, craftsmanship, and most important — originality. None of these basic qualities are in the CCP exhibit.

Our problem as art patrons and viewers is that we have somehow lost the capacity to discern, to criticize, and also to remember. We go back to the yesteryears, the masters we studied in school, the sculptors of ancient Greece and Rome, the classical writers as well, Homer, Cervantes all of them. Even without the superior implements and materials today, the many varieties of oils for the painters, and the modern cutting instruments powered by electricity, the artists of the ancient world were able to produce those sculptures and paintings that continue to delight us with their fine detail and their exquisite form.

Now, we say that there is a new way of looking at things and I agree, but the old verities remain: that artists are craftsmen, they are a special people, for not everyone can draw, or write.

As a writer myself, I work very hard at my novels. I know grammar although I am not a grammarian. On order, I can write in a few minutes a sonnet — it may not be good, but it will be a sonnet. I can close my eyes and describe imaginary scenes, dialogues, etc. And I write and rewrite and rewrite. In other words, a work of art is not created at the spur of a moment. It is cerebrated and worked out through time, with great effort, imagination and most important, craftsmanship.

When I was running Solidaridad Galleries and some young punk came to me with a sheaf of his abstract drawings, I would give him a pencil and ask him to draw my fist to find out if he could draw. Some of them didn’t come back. The late Hernando Ocampo whom I knew very well was a great craftsman with an acute understanding of color and he did paint so many pictures of dazzling brilliance and originality. If he could only draw, he could have gone very, very far.

I just saw the ongoing exhibit of Fred Aguilar Alcuaz in Cubao and much earlier that of Fred Liongoren. Both did abstracts, both can draw very well, just as many of the Impressionists of the 19th century were master craftsmen, too. My very good friend, Fr. Gaston Petit, who is a renowned painter and designer, has made an international reputation as an abstract painter, but he, too, can draw.

I bring to mind two women artists I admire very much: Gilda Cordero Fernando —she is a writer and, with a writer’s superior imagination, she has created beautiful pictures with exquisite craftsmanship. Julie Lluch, the sculptor, has also created in terracotta unusual figures that have no equivalent in reality — they are very imaginative and interesting. But she also sculpted busts, statues of people which exude character and are, therefore, memorable works of art.

There is so much anarchy in the world of art today and much of it is due to this dictum that there is “a new way of seeing things.” If I covered the Batasan building — all of it with black cloth — that is not only searing commentary, an achievement — it is also something new. But is it art?

If I put my excrement in a tin can, sealed it like a tin of sardines, that, too is interesting; but again, is it art? If I cut two huge pipes, fused them, is it art? Yet, these have happened and it is for us who know to point out that such happenings, such constructions — as they term it — are not art at all unless we give a new and ridiculous definition of art.

How I wish our artists would stop claiming freedom of expression all the time that they are criticized. To me freedom of expression is not involved with the CCP exhibit. Artistic sensibility and rigid critical values are the norm and they should prevail if our culture is to develop.

We have done it when we were young, put beards and blackened teeth on pictures of people. If I were to criticize religious faith visually, I would do it much better, more creatively than what this artist had done. The cross alone — I can do so much with it with allegory and symbolism. And this is what is precisely wrong with so many of our visual artists: for all their superb craftsmanship, they lack imagination and they don’t think hard enough. Then even sweet Jesus would understand; after all, in this earth His people who didn’t know what they were doing, beat Him up, crowned Him with thorns then crucified Him.


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