The tyranny of offense

By Lisandro (Leloy) Claudio



The Inquirer editorial “Art as Terrorism,” which appeared on August 8th, is a tacit endorsement of the Catholic bishops’ suppression of the right to free expression. Its criticism of Mideo M. Cruz’s controversial “Poleteismo” (or Polytheism), recently removed from an exhibit in the CCP, belies a disdain for secular principles that protect those who do not see themselves as self-appointed arbiters of divine truth. Given the Inquirer’s stature as the country’s newspaper of record, this is saddening.

Before I get to the article’s main contention, let me address the most facile argument in the history of art criticism, as the honor of making this argument belongs to the author of the Inquirer editorial. In an attempt at a witty aside, the author claims “Poleteismo” is “unoriginal” “because Cruz merely recycled old Catholic calendars and commercial ads to make his artistic statement.”

Has the author not heard of Andy Warhol who showed that pastiche and the unique combination of existing images may constitute original art? If that’s too high tech, my grade 4 teacher told me there have been great collages in the history of art. This is a minor point, but it casts doubt on the author’s ability to determine artistic merit.

Like “Poleteismo,” the Inquirer editorial is itself a pastiche, with a random attack on “liberal” history (as this were a bad thing in a liberal democracy) and an obtuse diatribe about iconoclastic art. Apropos iconoclasm, it says Cruz’s approach could be “terror prone” as the logic has a connection with that of the Taliban when they “dynamited in 2001 the ancient giant mountain carvings of Buddhas of Afghanistan, a terrorist blow to the cultural patrimony of humanity.”

To this, I would simply reply that there is a huge gulf that separates a) a lowly artist placing a penis on a cheap (cheap, meaning it doesn’t cost much, lest I get accused of blasphemy) reproduction of Christ’s image and b) violent religious zealots blowing up world treasures. One is a sign of protest against a powerful Church from a dissenter whose rights we must acknowledge in a democratic society. The other is an expression of religious bigotry by a group in a position of power. The more apt comparison is between the Taliban and the CBCP as they are both icons (iconoclasm-related pun intended) of religious power.

Beyond the religious history dump, the gist of the Inquirer editorial is simple: that “Poleteismo” is “deeply offensive” to Catholics and other Christians.

But is offense of Christians a fair criterion for determining state policy?

As an agnostic, the work does not offend my innermost being because Jesus has yet to permeate that being. I have a deep appreciation for the Gospels and Jesus’s message of love, but Christ to me is a great philosopher and not a God – a view that many of Jesus’s earliest followers actually held. I love Jesus the way I love Michel Foucault. Notwithstanding the fact that Foucault’s bald head already looked like a penis, I would not be offended if somebody painted my Foucault with human genitalia (he might have actually appreciated it).

Put simply, the artwork only crosses a line if one assumes the divinity of the subject. Since this is an argument about what can and cannot be displayed in a state institution, we should ask if the state can assume the divinity of the subject “defiled” in “Poleteismo.” It cannot, because doing so would entail the state supporting a Christian take on what is sacred and what is not.

As I’ve said before, the Church is one interest group among many in civil society. In a secular society, it has the same public rights that other interests groups – from socialist activists to security guard falsely represented by a common thief parading as a politician – have. Organized Catholics, like everyone else, have a public role, but they shouldn’t have special privileges. Their sense of posterity is no more sacred than mine or that of my heretic and “immoral” friends from the Filipino Freethinkers. I am greatly offended by Church ads insinuating that RH bill activists are baby killers. Would it be justified if I vandalized their “art?” If I had it banned? If I had it prevented it from being displayed in the CCP (assuming crass manifestations of religious extremism can pass CCP standards)? To our theocratic interlocutos, we freethinkers do not ask for special privileges like some of you do; we rmerely want equality under the law.

But Catholics are the majority, you say. Doesn’t that mean you should protect the rights of the weak minority even more? Doesn’t that mean they have a right to express themselves against the dominant majority? This is, after all, the essence of free speech.

As the Inquirer itself notes, certain acts of symbolic violence are “understandable.” Is it not then understandable for an artist to use his medium to protest against the patriarchy of the institutional Catholic Church? This is no more offensive than the actions of a CBCP that insists on “sexual purity” in a country where families are too big to support, where cases of maternal mortality abound, and where people face the huge risk of sexually transmitted diseases. As far as I’m concerned, blasphemy is a weapon of the weak. The CBCP and its supporters should pick on someone their own size.


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