Art in the Time of Sacrilege

By Marie Yuvienco



In the early fifties, a Chinese citizen exhibited several one-reel 16-millimeter films at a recreation center named the Globe Arcade in Manila.  Authorities found the films to be indecent and immoral, and as a result, the alien was charged with violating article 201 of the Revised Penal Code.  Despite the accused’s pleading guilty to the offense, the trial court judge nevertheless insisted on screening the films to determine if they were indeed indecent and immoral, and after having done so, sentenced the accused to imprisonment of six months and one day.

The accused appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court.

In affirming the lower court’s decision, the Court made a pronouncement that, in hindsight, strikes one as quaint but in fact reflects the mores of the times.  Perhaps out of a sense of delicacy, the ponencia did not describe the images or the plot of the films, a failure which deprives us of the chance to evaluate them using contemporary standards.  But consider this passage from the 1955 case of People v. Go Pin:

‘His counsel brings to our attention some authorities to the effect that paintings and pictures of women in the nude, including sculptures of that kind are not offensive because they are made and presented for the sake of art. We agree with counsel for appellant in part. If such pictures, sculptures and paintings are shown in art exhibits and art galleries for the cause of art, to be viewed and appreciated by people interested in art, there would be no offense committed. However, the pictures here in question were used not exactly for art’s sake but rather for commercial purposes. In other words, the supposed artistic qualities of said pictures were being commercialized so that the cause of art was of secondary or minor importance. Gain and profit would appear to have been the main, if not the exclusive consideration in their exhibition; and it would not be surprising if the persons who went to see those pictures and paid entrance fees for the privilege of doing so, were not exactly artists and persons interested in art and who generally go to art exhibitions and galleries to satisfy and improve their artistic tastes, but rather people desirous of satisfying their morbid curiosity and taste, and lust, and for love for excitement, including the youth who because of their immaturity are not in a position to resist and shield themselves from the ill and perverting effects of these pictures.’

Of course, standards of decency and morality have evolved since Go Pin, but when it was decided, it was not much of an improvement from the 1923 case of People v. Kottinger wherein the Court absolved an American who was charged with selling indecent postcards; the postcards in question depicted, among others, “a Bontoc woman,” “Kalinga Girls,” and “an Ifugao Belle” dressed in their native finery.  (I will assume here that the pictures were considered obscene because some of the ladies were topless, but I can’t be sure.)

At any rate, the Court ruled that “pictures portraying the inhabitants of the country in native dress and as they appear and can be seen in the regions in which they live, are not obscene or indecent.”  Anthropology – one, smut – zero.

Later cases, however, will propose other standards for judging obscenity in art, such as People v. Padan which advanced the “redeeming value” theory, but Go Pin remains interesting since it defines art in the context of its place of exhibition, the people who go to see it, and whether the work is for profit or not.

For instance, if a controversial work is exhibited in the Cultural Center of the Philippines and is viewed by connoisseurs and artists, would such an opus be called art even if it features a plethora of penises scattered among Roman Catholic iconography?

It’s a shame that officials of the CCP bowed to public pressure in deciding to close “Kulô,” an exhibition whose star attraction was an installation titled Poleteismo by Mideo Cruz.

Before it was vandalized, Poleteismo was the sort of work where one has to pay particular attention to where one sits or leans, but as you can imagine, Catholics of the most onion-skinned type have been offended to the core of their souls by Cruz’s sacrilege.

But is sacrilege reason enough to censor an artist’s work?

Consider the 1952 case of Burstyn v. Wilson, the landmark case where the United States Supreme Court held that motion pictures are covered by the mantles of free speech and free press.

Using “sacrilege” as a standard to justify prior restraint, it was held that “the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures.”

Critics of Poleteismo charge that the work is totally unsuitable for an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, and no less than the avatar of everything that is true, good and beautiful who answers to the name Imelda Marcos has testified that it was not art at all.

Had they gone beyond their outrage and tried to listen to what the Cruz was trying to say, they would have been provoked into thinking.

Thinking, however, is anathema to blind faith.

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