by Sylvia L. Mayuga
Dakdakan at the CCP last August 5 talked up a storm left and right of Jesus Christ as swords crossed between freedom of expression and religious sensibilities roused to vehemence by the mixed media collage, Poleteismo, on exhibit.
The artist Mideo Cruz’s stated intention was to speak of “idolatry and neo-deities” shaping modern Filipino consciousness. “We need to realize that [Poleteismo] is the mirror of our society and of ourselves…The reality of our society is the real blasphemy of our own image; the blasphemy of our sacred self.”
Little did he know that his recycled piece first exhibited at the UP’s Vargas Museum in 2002 and the Ateneo’s Loyola House of Studies without incident in 2004 would cause such a furor in 2011, including a rare act of vandalism inside the august gallery of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
But this is no ordinary year, as liberals and conservatives are clashing in other battlegrounds such as reproductive health, divorce, and government gifts to bishops, with social media providing a real-time arena for rhetorical combat. Spirited exchanges about the separation of church and state have occurred in media, at Senate hearings, and on the House floor.
The tactics have also become confrontational, with the defacement of Cruz’s art preceded by RH advocate Carlos Celdran’s audacious protest inside the Manila Cathedral last year.
For those familiar with American politics, this could be eerily similar to the US’s long-running culture wars between religious and secular values.
ily similar to the US’s long-running culture wars between religious and secular values.
Archbishop Oscar Cruz called the CCP exhibit “sickening,” advising Mideo Cruz to see a psychiatrist.
Bishop Deogracias Yñiguez called for a boycott. Speaking in their individual capacities, these two clerics set Catholic lay leaders on fire. Riling them most were a seated Christ the King wearing a red clown’s nose and Mickey Mouse ears, a cross with a bright red penis thrusting out, and condoms juxtaposed with religious objects in Poleteismo’s collage.
Surrounding these was a welter of commercials, travel stickers, political pamphlets, pictures of Fernando Poe, Jr., Gilbert Teodoro, and Barack Obama in an election season, penis ashtrays juxtaposed with pictures of the Holy Family, rosaries, crucifixes, even Christmas lights. This visual summary of modern Filipino culture gave this viewer pause with thoughts of pedophile priests.
The organizers described this exhibit as “discourses of the pen and the sword, education and revolution that continue to implicate Filipino artists and thinkers.” That turned out prescient. Its timing on both the UST’s quadricentennial and the 150th birthday of its most famous dropout, Jose Rizal, had farther loaded the bases. Poleteismo is only one art work among the exhibit’s 32 others by artist alumni of the University of Sto. Tomas, but it provoked the whole exhibit KULÔ to live up its name, Tagalog for “boil.”
The air bristled with heat as Dakdakan started with moderator Precious Leaño stating its purpose – “bring issues to the surface, document and forward them to the stakeholders to decide on the course of action.” Then she laid the ground rules: “no responses, no debates, no profanities.” Anyone breaking the rules would be “asked to step out.”
The need for caution was underlined the day before, when a male and female left illegible signatures on the guestbook, entered the gallery and smashed three penis ashtrays on the floor, scribbling on one of the walls, “Sumpainka! Emedeo Cruz” (Curse you!) among other unprintables.
This was only the latest outburst in days of protest in the mainstream media and Internet social networks. Now CCP Visual Arts Department head Karen O. Flores faced angry Catholics with a dry mouth and sore throat, delaying her reading of a statement appealing for respect for the right to free artistic expression.
Sitting impatiently through the introduction and slide show of the exhibited works were male and female Catholic lay leaders (among them Gunless Society founder and Kapatiran member, Nandy Pachecho, and Edgardo Tria Tirona, national president of the Council of the Laity) and priests of the Society of St. Pius X.
They were having none of the CCP’s attempt to set the furor in the context of the exhibit’s concept. “We’re here for one specific work,” one cut in. With that the forum opened and they went for the jugular with the mic in their hands. Again came the bill of particulars. Poleteismo was “blasphemous.” It was offensive to a Christian majority. It was not the best of Filipino culture the CCP was mandated to promote. The exhibit must close ahead of the scheduled Aug. 21 ending.
Lay leader Manolo Dayrit declared that more Christian groups like the Baptists were joining their ranks. Elderly UST alumni had also visited CCP president Raul Sunico on Aug. 2 to discuss their demand “to stop the exhibit in 48 hours or face legal consequences. The 48 hours had passed but still no action.”
When they discovered that both Sunico and CCP board chair Emily Abrera were listening in the crowd, they instantly asked them to sit at the main table as Dayrit went on to cite laws making the CCP “liable for corrupting values” – Article 20 of the Revised Penal Code penalizing exhibits scandalous to religion; Article 21 speaking of compensation; Article 26 speaking of a course of action to make up for insulting religious belief. Dayrit leered at Karen Flores, saying she “could be a respondent for betrayal of public trust.”
It was the moment for Raul Sunico, a UST alumnus and Dean of its Conservatory of Music, to speak: “We have received many letters and texts coming from both sides. We just came from an emergency meeting of the CCP Board. It’s also divided about this. After this forum, we will continue to meet. In the end the decision must be beneficial to the majority.”
He sat back and added, “I told the Dean of the College of Fine Arts and she sent a team for a look-see. I was a bit surprised. One of the priests, and they were Dominicans, said (about Poleteismo), ‘It really depends on the eye of the beholder.’”
The naysayers were silent as Emily Abrera segued, “Our viewpoint was to take the exhibit as a whole – 32 artists with something to say. One artwork caused offense. What we had hoped is that they would cause points of reflection on what artists have to say, how they see the world – who knows, it may still happen. Some artists can can take this to the edge – bolder, brasher than the rest. We try to take a balanced view of all this.”
“But this art work caused collective indignation for its utter lack of sensitivity! Cruz pa naman ang pangalan niya!” Tria-Tirona exclaimed. The naysaying faithful clapped, around 20 of them in an audience of 200 plus.
It seemed almost like the cuing of some morality play when a young man stood up next. “I’m Kenneth Keng,” he said, “elected Vestry member of the Church of the Holy Trinity, Director of its Children’s Education program, and a member of the Filipino Freethinkers. All Christians seem to be offended by this art work. I’m a Christian and I’m not offended. What about the shameless vandalism that occurred in this hall yesterday?”
Now came clapping from numbers far larger than the naysayers, mostly students and artists muttering about what they called a “new Inquisition.”
There were more words with some shouting and shaking of fists as Dakdakan wore on, but some of the weightiest came from the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, once at the forefront of the anti-dictatorship struggle. They recalled how CAP founding chairman Lino Brocka persuaded the Convention to make an insert in the 1987 Constitution advocating for works “that will hurt… that will not make you rest. For the times are really bad, and given times like this, it is a crime to rest.”
The naysayers heard that, but did they listen? Brocka was another disturbing artist. Last we heard, they were heading for the Ombudsman.
Karen O. Flores wrote about the “subtext, subtlety and nuance” of that Friday storm on her Facebook page. — YA, GMA News