Violence should not be condoned, but the vandalism inflicted on Mideo M. Cruz’s “Polytheism” art work at the Cultural Center of the Philippines last Aug. 4—an unidentified couple smashed a penis-motif wooden ashtray glued onto the poster, and tried but failed to set fire to the collage that formed part of the installation—is understandable. The work is deeply offensive to Catholics, and even non-Catholic Christians are shocked and disgusted at the installation’s wooden cross with a movable penis and condom. If all of this does not constitute sacrilege, blasphemy or attack on religion, we don’t know what is.
Cruz’s “Polytheism” consists of a collage of religious posters and images, apparently mainly culled from old religious calendars showing the Blessed Mother, the Holy Family and saints from the Roman Catholic martyrology and hagiography, as well as old crucifixes and crosses. The religious images are pasted side by side advertising posters showing capitalist and Hollywood icons such as Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mouse and American President Barack Obama.
Cruz has explained that his work seeks to represent Philippine history as one of “idol worship,” from the Spanish period (when the Filipinos acquired their Catholicism) to the American period (when they acquired their consumerist and colonial mindset). Hence, the work’s title, “Polytheism,” the worship of many gods. But what about the phalluses and the condoms and why are they stuck on the faces of the Catholic images? They are symbols of “patriarchy” and repression of women, says Cruz.
The kindest that could be said about the work is that it’s unoriginal, and not only because Cruz merely recycled old Catholic calendars and commercial ads to make his artistic statement. It’s unoriginal because it seeks to represent the reductionist liberal version of Philippine history—“300 years in the convent and 50 years in Hollywood.”
Predictably enough, Cruz also misrepresents Catholic iconography in order to suit his self-serving and ultimately erroneous thesis. Whatever the excesses of Filipino folk religiosity, it must be said Catholics do not worship images; they venerate them as sensual channels to the divine. Catholics worship God; they accord the Blessed Trinity “latria,” Greek for adoration. They don’t worship the Blessed Mother and the saints. To the latter, they accord “dulia,” Greek for veneration; to the former they accord “hyperdulia,” a higher form of veneration. Therefore, Catholics don’t practice polytheism. Cruz not only misrepresents Catholics’ monotheistic practice; he insults it by using Catholic iconography to poke fun at it.
In the end, Cruz is an “iconoclast.” His art smashes perceived false idols. The danger here is that his art could become arrogant and terror-prone. The Church has experienced a tumultuous history of iconoclastic revolutions across the centuries (the Byzantine iconoclastic outbursts in the first millennium and the Protestant revolts in the second) that have destroyed priceless items in man’s cultural heritage. And the Church is not alone among religions victimized by iconoclasm. Closer to our day, we witnessed how the Muslim Taliban dynamited in 2001 the ancient giant mountain carvings of Buddhas of Afghanistan, a terrorist blow to the cultural patrimony of humanity.
All of this could be talking points for a civilized discourse about Cruz’s art, but instead of calling for dialogue, the CCP has made matters worse by pooh-poohing the protest. Karen Ocampo Flores, visual arts head of the CCP, arrogantly called it “moralist hysteria” and “religious myopia.” Flores seems unaware that the CCP is a state instrumentality; its exhibit of a work deemed offensive to religious sensibilities makes it complicit to an attack on religion.
It is unfortunate that the furor over “Polytheism” has obscured the fact that it’s just one of the works in a larger exhibit, “Kulo,” mounted by curators, artists and writers who have studied at the University of Santo Tomas in connection with its 400th anniversary this year. The exhibit does not have the sanction of the Dominican authorities of UST and the organizers have been keen to emphasize that—if only to make sure the works and writings on exhibit will represent an independent and objective assessment of the venerable institution. It is to the credit of the curators that because of its rather sensitive content, Cruz’s work is placed in the exhibit hall in such a way to warn visitors that it may offend. The works of the 30 other participating artists and writers are equally interesting and even provocative; they are true to the exhibit’s title: they simmer with art and insight.