By Roby Alampay
The latest word is that the Cultural Center of the Philippines has taken down a controversial exhibit deemed by some, maybe many, as “blasphemous”. No less than the Philippine Daily Inquirer condemned Mideo Cruz’s installation, calling it “Art as Terrorism”.
Inquirer’s editorial says that “violence should never be condoned”, but only to add that in the case of people vandalizing Cruz’s art and attempting to burn it down, it is “understandable”.
Of everything we have seen and heard in the past week, no exercise of free expression has been more dangerous.
Indeed, the CCP Board says they are taking down the exhibit not because it has been convinced of any folly – and certainly not because of Imelda Marcos, for crying out loud – but plainly because they have been threatened. It is they who are being terrorized.
Art may be subversive, it may be idiotic, it may be senseless, and yes, it may at times be so insulting as to be expressive of a death wish. But it is by no stretch of the imagination terroristic, for the nature of art is that it may be powerful to express, but never powerful enough to hold anybody hostage. Beliefs are probably (and just as well) challenged but always remain free. Faith is tested, and may even be swayed. But art can never coerce. It does not even try to convince, but only to instigate, and at this, it has a chance only among those who bother to visit and to look.
What are we to do, the insulted ask, when our faith is attacked by images and words, never mind that they hide behind the cloak of art and free expression? The answer to that is plain to demonstrate. You do what you are already doing, all the various and valid things you have been doing. Some have opened their minds to what Cruz is trying to say – whatever that is. Some have entered into discourse. Some have ignored Cruz altogether, with a few shaking their heads but accepting the truth that in a civilized society a man with a death wish does not necessarily mean everybody else’s right to oblige him. And then some use free expression and art, as much of it that they, too, can muster, without taking a knife to their offender, or a match to the CCP.
Worldwide and throughout history, there are countless examples of art, protest, and press freedom blurring the lines between art and sensibility, and more important, testing the limits of tolerance, if not therefore expanding the democratic space.
Let us take it from the experience of Muslims. (Let us be honest to start, in other words: If there is any religion that truly reels from shallow and irresponsible discourse in the Western-media dominated modern world, it is Islam.) Just before 9/11, and even before some Danish cartoonist with balls started drawing Mohammed, Islamic nations led by Pakistan had begun calling annually for a non-binding UN resolution condemning “defamation of religion”. Every year from 2001 to 2010 the proposition received a majority vote from the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.
But every year, too, that majority vote had grown smaller and smaller, with previously fence-sitting members of the UNHRC one-by-one siding with the resolution’s steadfast critics: they who had warned that the broadly-worded resolution would likely be used by repressive governments to stifle any expression that can even remotely be tied to religious sensibilities. (The Catholic Church in the Philippines, for example, ties faith and decency to everything from the Reproductive Health debates to jueteng.)
The “religious defamation” lobby, in a strategic retreat, abandoned the annual campaign for a UN resolution against defamation of religion this year. Instead, it sought common ground with advocates for free expression, who were coming to every annual vote with an ever-growing list of reports and governments that had been proving their fears well-founded. The result: the UNHRC this year voted unanimously, no longer passing a resolution “combating defamation of religions”, but in its stead, one (with a deep breath) “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief.”
Two crucial shifts in the thinking. First, the focus goes from requiring governments to protect religion, to demanding that states protect individuals. Second, the emphasis is no longer on religion, but on tolerance.
The consensus no longer calls for restrictions on legitimate expression. Instead, it takes a more constructive and positive approach, emphasizing education, not prison and not violence, to weed out intolerance and bigotry (which, in any culture, is always seen as a symptom of maleducation, bad breeding, and an immature society.)
Tolerance will ultimately benefit all, the heretics as well as the faithful.
Let the artists be weird. They can only try to push the boundaries of thought and expression. That is why they are called the avant-garde. They are soldiers further in advance of the army itself, slashing and burning and clearing the path for whatever may follow. The boundaries must be expanded, but the artists themselves have no power to dictate where the rest of society will go.
For governments, on the other hand, as even the Organization of Islamic Conference effectively conceded, the reflex to empower itself, and to restrict rather than expand democratic space, is automatic. The notion that states can and should define and execute what is criminally insulting is an invitation to destroy all that a nation such as ours supposedly upholds: democracy as well as, ironically, faith itself.
Imelda Marcos, coming down on the side of the Inquirer, spoke of the Cultural Center of the Philippines as sanctuary for the Filipino soul. For all, she said more specifically, that is true, and good, and beautiful about this nation. She throws in the proposition that as a state institution, there is no place in the CCP for any thought that could insult any religion.
Actually, it is the other way around. As a state institution consecrated to the arts, the CCP should be agnostic to the notion of insult, and dogmatic to the possibility of expression, to the chance of happening upon art.
Art as Terrorism? Try Democracy as Religion. Where democracy is dogma, every expression is prayer, freedom is shared and miraculously multiplied to nourish the multitude – the idiots and even abusive among them. Abuse, of course, as in all religions, is a sin; but abuse of thought is also always indefinable, and so in the democratic theology, tolerance is the highest virtue. Democracy provides the only true environment where you can defend your faith, if you really have it, while also protecting the rights of others, if you really believe we all deserve it.