August 22, 2011

Life and Art

(Photo of Mideo Cruz's installation at the CCP from emanzky88.)

OK, I’m no art critic, but I appreciate art in all its forms—whether these be painted canvases, sculptures, installations, even performance art. I remember how a former college professor in the mid-’80s once jumped on top of a table, then stepped down, then up again on the table, then down again, over and over, again. This was of course in Penguin in Malate, where all the cool artistes used to hang out.

People may not have understood it then, but that was her thing. She was a performance artist. Some said it was good art, some thought it was bad and a waste of time. I was just hugely entertained. I got drunk. And went home happy.

This controversy over the Kulo exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), specifically over the depiction of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, has been a pain in the butt for people like me who value freedom of expression.

And it just shows how far we Filipinos have fallen behind in terms of art appreciation, that our honorable senators even have to waste our taxpayers’ money to discuss “What is art?” (Good thing Sen. Edgardo Angara decided that one hearing was to be the first and last. The former University of the Philippines president probably could no longer take the uneducated comments of some of his colleagues which just exposed the Senate, not to mention his committee, to ridicule.)

Art cannot be all good and beautiful, like those painted flower gardens or seascapes on canvases regularly exhibited at SM Megamall. Many of our fellow Filipinos seem to be still stuck in the age-old concepts of art—the nudes of Juan Luna or Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, the fishing scenes of Oscar Zalameda and Fabian de la Rosa, the historical depictions and pastoral scenes of Fernando Amorsolo, etc.

If one just takes a look at modern Filipino art since the late ’60s, some ordinary folk would probably not even get what they mean, and also wonder if these pieces can be considered “art.” For instance, Raymundo Albano’s Untitled #575, a serigraph currently in the collection of Bank of the Philippine Islands, is just three blocks of colors—blue, red and orange splashed on top of one another. Is it art and will you pay a lot of money for it?

Then there is another serigraph, this time by Lee Aguinaldo, an untitled chest X-ray in brown. Is this art? Apparently it is because, again, BPI paid good money to have it in its collection. But what does it mean? And what does the person looking at it take away from viewing such a piece?

I don’t mean this to be another art appreciation course, but I think we need to be more open-minded about the new forms of art out there. It is not all swaths of blue skies, white picket fences, or rows of golden palay gently swaying in the wind.

(Photo courtesy from

Art can be ugly and thought-provoking as well. The artwork of Mideo Cruz, like it or not, fits the bill. He stuck a huge penis ashtray (the one you get from Baguio I suppose), on the face of a haloed Jesus Christ. My gauge of whether it is art is what his colleagues say. Apparently, other artists respect him as one, so who can deny him that title? And the mere fact that it has been exhibited in the UP, the University of Santo Tomas, and the CCP means it is art.

Cruz’s works may be shocking perhaps to some people who have yet to even see Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes with a sword slicing neatly through the latter’s neck, blood spewing everywhere. Done in the 1500s, it is upsetting even in this day and age. But perhaps because it is a painting, the gruesomeness is minimized compared to Cruz’s art installation. I am not saying Cruz is on the same level as Caravaggio, but in terms of the shock level, they come pretty close.

The religious have said that Cruz’s installation blasphemes Jesus Christ and the other religious icons therein depicted in his other works. But as an artist, he has every right to question our own religious beliefs (if that was his aim), and comment about it. And whether it is considered good or bad art, there is a need to protect his freedom to express what he feels about a subject, in the same way that my freedom to write down my thoughts in this column should be.

For instance, there are excellent, superb writers like Teddy Boy Locsin with his clever and witty essays and columns. And there are columnists who mix up their metaphors and yet are allowed to say their piece in their prestigious newspapers.

There are radio commentators who regularly mouth off ignorant statements, and yet are allowed by their networks to keep their crap on the air. (One brilliant commentator even had the gall to ask, “Who is Raul Sunico?” at the same criticizing Cruz’s work without having even gone to see it. Just for your information, Mr. Talking Head, Mr. Sunico is a celebrated pianist, who has won acclaim both here and abroad. Next time, do your research before shooting off your mouth.)

It is this very freedom of expression that these critics would like to curtail in the wake of the CCP controversy, which allows these cretins to write freely and speak freely. Just because we don’t like what they’re saying, and they offend people, doesn’t mean we have to demand for the death of their newspaper columns and radio programs. If you listen to the amount of BS that is being said over the air, with a few radio commentators here and there regularly lambasting this or that government official, to the point of slandering them, then this art installation of Cruz doesn’t even come close to being offensive!

As I kept saying in the social-media circles, no one pointed a gun to anyone’s head to force them to see that Kulo exhibit at the CCP. You and I and everybody else had a choice whether to look at the pieces exhibited there. If you were offended, then neither the artist nor the CCP can do anything about it. You had been adequately warned before entering the space that your sensibilities may be offended. No need to deface the artwork or set fire to the CCP.

In the same manner, we don’t need to read that grammatically-incorrect columnist or listen to that slandering radio commentator. Even for stupendously inappropriate TV shows like Jersey Shore, for instance, we have the power to choose whether or not to expose ourselves to such stupidity.

(Originally published on Aug. 19, 2011. My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror.)

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