A personal commentary
By Raïssa Robles
When Imelda Marcos went to the Cultural Center of the Philippines and asked it to shut down an art exhibit, it promptly did.
When presidential spokesman Ed Lacierda was asked what the Office of the President intended to do with the same art exhibit, he washed President Benigno Aquino’s hands for him and said:
I think we should not be involved in a matter that is purely a decision made by CCP and this is about art.
Whether the President likes it or not, he is involved because the CCP is directly under him. That’s what the CCP website says:
But this is just in. According to radio station DZMM, President Aquino has reacted negatively to the exhibit. He said it was insulting and that freedom is not absolute.
PNoy gave his statement after Imelda Marcos had stepped in and wielded presidential power for him. I don’t know if he ordered the exhibit to be closed as well. In any case, Imelda Marcos beat him to it.
[Here’s a fresh news update as of 4:30 p.m. of August 9, 2011: According to writer Sylvia Mayuga, the CCP board chair Emily Abrera told her it wasn’t true they had shut down the exhibit after Imelda Marcos had prodded them. Mayuga quoted Abrera as giving this reason for the closure: “Raul Sunico and I made the decision last night BECAUSE OF MULTIPLE DEATH THREATS ON CCP OFFICIALS, OFFICERS, AND ARTISTS.
The CCP said: “Due to numerous emails, text messages and other letters sent to various offficers of the CCP, and to the artists themselves, with an increasing number of threats to persons and property, the members of the Board of the Cultural Center of the Philippines have decided to close down the Main Gallery where the Kulo Exhibit is on display.”]
True or not, Imelda Marcos has succeeded in grabbing the credit for the closure.
For me, Imelda Marcos had the right to pass judgment on the exhibit and say:
After seeing the exhibit I was really shocked because it was not only ugly, it was not true, it was not at all beautiful because there were statues and pictures of saints and Christ with horns and with his penis up and it was really a desecration of a spiritual symbol for Catholics.
But I vehemently protest CCP’s action in closing down the entire exhibit even temporarily. Because by doing so, it is saying that Imelda Marcos’ standards are THE STANDARDS BY WHICH TO JUDGE ART.
Senator Vicente Sotto has also waded into the controversy and threatened to starve CCP of is budget. He agreed with Imelda Marcos who believes that art has to be “true, good and beautiful.”
Following this belief, Imelda Marcos built a wall to hide the squatter communities in Manila from view. She banned the films of Lino Brocka.
I know I’m getting into a dangerously divisive territory here. But I must. One of the things I decided recently when I thought about my life was the need to say what I truly felt and understood, not what society wants me to feel and follow. I know I’m just a small voice speaking in the wilderness, but that’s what the Internet is all about.
In this furor over an art exhibit, I see the same fundamentalism that the world likes to associate with Islamic militants.
And no less than the Philippine Daily Inquirer seems to be supporting such violent reactions. In its Monday editorial, Inquirer said:
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.
And why is it understandable? Inquirer said it’s because:
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.
Worrying implications of the Inquirer editorial
This means, if anyone finds something written in the Inquirer deeply offensive because of the reader’s religious belief, Inquirer should not complain if that person smashes its glass facade or sets fire to the office building.
What I find intriguing is that Catholic Church prelates themselves have varied reactions to the exhibit. Archbishop of Manila Gaudencio Rosales called it “an abuse of freedom….There’s a responsibility not to destroy culture, civilization or the good conduct of persons.”
The good cardinal even said:
Those who are like that, I don’t know what he learned from his parents, from his school, from his friends. It’s a complete betrayal of what is right and the knowledge of what is wrong.
Hmmm. The artist Mideo Cruz was a graduate of the University of Santo Tomas, Asia’s oldest Catholic university.
Yet the same art work was exhibited inside Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University.
Personally, I found the art work shocking at first glance. But not disgusting. Or sacrilegious or blasphemous. Let me explain.
profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions, as well as persons, things, or places consecrated to God.
Surely, Catholics do not believe that the Jesus picture to which the wooden phallus is attached is consecrated to God.
Blasphemy is also defined as:
words of hatred, reproach, or defiance; in speaking ill of God; in failing in respect toward him in one’s speech; in misusing God’s name.
Strictly speaking, blasphemy is a verbal utterance against God.
But let’s take a broad approach and see if the art work is indeed blasphemous – or whether the artist intended it to mock God and disrespect him.
And so I scoured the Internet to see what the artist intended to say with it. I found the exact opposite. The artist Mideo Cruz said he pasted the phallus on Christ’s face to symbolize Christ’s power and authority.
According to an interview with Cruz by Ina Silverio in Bulatlat.com, the art work is part of a larger installation entitled “Poleteismo” (Polytheism):
I wanted to provoke people into thinking. I titled my work ‘Poleteismo’ which loosely translates into ‘many beliefs’ or ‘many deities.’ Throughout history, humanity has grown to create new gods and these are not always religious figures but concepts and objects. Some have taken to worshiping money; some see politicians as godsend. People create idols and these idols whether or not they’re deserving of idolatry or worship affect our lives and how we function and see the world.
The same exhibit was shown at the Loyola School of Theology inside the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University and at the Vargas Museum inside the University of the Philippines. No one made a scene against it.
Why the artist is right
Mideo Cruz was right about his observation on how Filipinos view religion.
Several years back I had to interview a congressman inside his house and I was shocked to see the portrait of Jesus Christ depicted after His resurrection. Instead of the usual beam of light emanating from his heart, however, what I saw were dollar signs.
I’m not kidding.
But here’s the thing
In closing, I would like to share with you what my husband Alan reminded me about the Sistine Chapel, which we enjoyed gazing at some years back and which future generations will continue to enjoy. According to the book Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s, after the artist Michelango died, one of the pontiffs – Pope Paul IV – ordered all the nudes he had painted on the chapel ceiling covered.
Michelangelo had obstinately insisted on painting totally nude figures because he wanted to portray the human being to divine perfection – the way they would look after resurrection.
In response to public outrage over such obscenities as nude figures cavorting on the chapel ceiling while the Holy Mass was being said, Daniele da Volterra, the artist who did the papal bidding, painted clothes on them and “earned the nickname il brachetoone – the pantaloon maker.”
Another Pope, Hadrian, had wanted the entire chapel ceiling destroyed but he died before his orders were carried out.
I’m not equating the art work of Mideo Cruz to the Sistine Chapel. If given the choice, I’ll probably not want this particular piece of his in my living room.
But I do believe that Philippine society is all the more richer in thought because of it.
Because for me, true art is rebellion.