This is a little late, written and posted when what others might deem as the worst part of the issue has come to pass, but probably is only timely in my own regard, having attended the opening of the ManilArt Gallery 2011 just last Wednesday, August 24, and just now more than ever remembering a research paper I wrote in my freshman year at college on F. Sionil Jose.
Because even as I attended something that had its own saving grace(s), I know what discomfort lies at the heart of it. What saddens me most about the controversy surrounding Mideo Cruz’s Polyteismo revolves around two things: denial and refusal. When I say denial, I mean the Catholic-related denial of the fact that what we see in the display of Polyteismo is but the putting-into-art of everyday Filipino life. If we should be offended by the coexistence of Christ’s face with a penis in close quarters, then we might as well be offended by split level Christianity that Fr. Jaime S. Bulatao, S.J. himself pointed out.
If people can spend so much time insisting that the CCP shouldn’t have wasted its space and money in displaying such blasphemous artwork, then surely we can also banish all the vendors around Quiapo Church in a reenactment of Christ’s rage against the money-changers outside the temple.
Then we should be able to sweep off every single child begging for themselves (or for syndicates, who can tell?) outside the churches and chapels and restaurants and hospitals alike. Then we should be able to give justice to what is termed “the single deadliest event for journalists in history”. Then we should be able to remember what August 25 meant just a year ago.
The refusal, on the other hand, we can find in such strong insistence that people shouldn’t be allowed to think for themselves. I agree wholeheartedly that art can be offensive. And I can’t deny that the people who can and will feel offended are not faceless characters but are rather tangibly the people around me. What I dislike so much, however, is the insistence that critical thinking isn’t needed in the situation. Let’s put it this way. All right, Chist + penis = offense; is tantamount to bad art. Or perhaps isn’t really art at all.
But why? Why is it bad art? Why isn’t it art at all? What is art? Not only in the sense of the word that makes people think of the Greeks or the Renaissance artists but art in the sense of Filipino culture and history?
And to be specific, what does the penis mean? Mr. Cruz himself gives that answer, but I cannot believe that it has never entered the minds of people like Imelda Marcos that the phallus is a symbol of power. That we even consider the opinions of Imelda Marcos on art and even more sadly, on art in relation to faith, is so unthinkable, the fact that it happens speaks volumes.
Even the Church, I choose to believe, isn’t naive to the concept of phallic power, because no matter what anyone says, no one becomes ordained without years of study, and not just in the religious field, either. But this is a society that is extremely pararanoid when it comes to sex, and extremely synthetic instead of analytic, so much so that every mention of sex is now suddenly supportive of the RH Bill. This in the light of Kapamilya shows like Alyna, Katorse, and more recently, Reputasyon, that so very few complained about, even with their premises of virgin-as-sex-object. It’s criticism that’s so selective, it’s either it isn’t criticism at all, or that it isn’t faith at all. Perhaps both.
Because honestly, perhaps it was inevitable that the Church was going to step in and rage against Mr. Cruz. Perhaps it was inevitable that the government would only pay so much heightened attention to the arts in a case like this (passive-aggressive as it always has been when it comes to the humanities). I hate that people have questioned what little Mr. Cruz himself has consented to offer as answers (taking to mind that Polyteismo is itself an answer or a response to daily Filipino faith) when they themselves have failed to question, well, their own causes for their questions.
After all, isn’t it worth asking the President of the Philippines what he means when he says that “When you stoke conflict that is not an ennobling activity”?
If this is so, what did Ninoy Aquino do then, when he challenged a dictator? Was that not “stoking conflict”?
But of course challenging dictatorship and putting up a so-called subversive piece of art are not the same thing. What I do think is so dangerous about the President’s statement is the implication that you can allow for a certain amount of freedom and then expect that there won’t be any conflict. When you give people even the smallest amount of freedom, conflict is inevitable, and that is as it should be. And if and when you declare that someone has crossed the lines, then you must first ask yourself what those lines are, and most importantly: who drew those lines? What is the intention of such lines?
I am not here arguing that the lines should be erased. I am here pointing out how ridiculous the counter-arguments have been against the CCP. I am here arguing how disgracefully our media have handled the situation.
And I am here showing how disappointed I am at how little people can back up their so-called reasons for putting Mr. Cruz down.
Case in point, I don’t understand at all what F. Sionil Jose was trying to say when he wrote against Mr. Cruz. I do not understand whether he was vainly attempting to reassert himself in the discourse of local art (and thus coming off as defensive instead of reasonable), or just griping that in his old age, he doesn’t understand what all these young people are calling art these days.
In any case, he fails miserably because of an x number of false assumptions on which his response is based. What was the use of claiming that had he been in the CCP’s shoes, he would have done otherwise? What was the use of pointing out that he was behind the operations of one of the earliest art galleries in Manila? A person who has the curriculum vitae to back up his arguments, precisely because he has this CV, doesn’t need to go through every accomplishment.
And that person certainly gains nothing in pointing out the people he knows in the industry, just as he gains no more respect in naming “the masters we studied in school, the sculptors of ancient Greece and Rome, the classical writers as well, Homer, Cervantes all of them” when he speaks of so local and particularly historical an event in art, faith, and politics.
Perhaps I should just admit that I’m disappointed on a personal scale because I expected a renowned Filipino writer who is absolutely insistent on a kind of literature that is socially active and relevant to be more critical of the progression of art in the country. You know what, I am not even averse to the possibility that maybe, just maybe Mr. Jose has a point. Maybe in light of other art works, Mr. Cruz’s collage pales in comparison and becomes nothing.
But how do you treat an essay that starts with, “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” when the artist in question, the same one Mr. Jose implies to be petty, was awarded the CCP 13 Artists Award in 2003 and the Ateneo Art Awards in 2007? I don’t mean to say that we should all bow down to Mr. Cruz because of his accomplishments or renown. But I do mean to say that a condescending tone that implies no prior investigation of what you’re up against shows you to be a poor critic. And on top of that, a sourgrape that accomplishes nothing.
Can you treat an article that works on such premises seriously?
In the end, there’s a part of me that is glad that art can still spark people into debate. But when I speak of “debate” I do not mean disrespect, nor a looking back at what the Western world has so far deemed as art. I do not mean the un-classy use of a writer’s excrement to prove a point, and nor do I mean the reminder of how stifling the Catholic faith can become in my country nor the event of media sensationalism.
But that’s exactly what happened here. And that’s what really devastates me. Because I love my country, and I love art, but I just don’t see the two together without conflict any time soon.
Or is that a good thing, now?