By Luis V. Teodoro
Clashes between artistic freedom and religious sensibilities occur from time to time, and they become even more contentious when art, whether in the form of a novel, a sculpture, or a painting, is subsidized with public funds.
The controversy over the Kulô exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines is not unique to this country. Neither are the demands for the CCP board members to resign, the threats to cut the CCP budget, the insults, hate messages, and death threats both the board as well as the artist have received, and even the vandalism of parts of the exhibit.
An exhibit in the United States in the late 1980s which featured a photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine titled Piss Christ elicited the same virulent and even violent reactions. Shown in Australia, the exhibit was withdrawn when someone tried to destroy it with a hammer. Church dignitaries also threatened to sue both the US National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which had funded the exhibit, as well as the artist for blasphemy and obscenity. The US Congress cut the NEA budget in half.
The artist said it was not his intention to offend Christian sensibilities. But an artist’s intention is no gauge to evaluate any work, whether it’s a play or a sculpture: rather should the work be evaluated independently of what the artist claims he intended. Neither is a work’s being “offensive” enough reason to condemn or even censor it, because someone somewhere is likely to be offended by painting or sculpture, for example by Michaelangelo’s David, or Boticelli’s Venus Rising from the Sea, there being no accounting for taste.
Some art critics at the time — real ones, and not Imelda Marcos and those other denizens of the Philippine Congress who habitually pander to what they imagine are majority Catholic sensibilities, or the cyber-rabble that launched an Internet hate campaign against the artist and the CCP — those critics interpreted Piss Christ as an attempt to recall the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice, the urine being symbolic of the real-life relevance of his death and resurrection.
The artist whose contribution to the CCP exhibit has been considered the most controversial has similarly disclaimed any attempt to offend Christian, particularly Catholic sensibilities. Whatever his intention was, however, one can argue that the images of Christ with Mickey Mouse ears and with a phallus for a nose are comments on how Christ and his teachings have been appropriated by the powerful and made into articles of commerce and amusement.
But the capacity to imagine that a work of art could be more than what’s on the surface is beyond those whose skin-deep religiosity, being limited to pro-forma, in-the-box demonstrations of piety, prevents them from leaving their comfort zones of traditional, unthinking Catholicism, which sees Christ solely and immutably as a blue-eyed Caucasian with a beard and a kindly expression and nothing much else. This Christianity-as-comforter mind-set helps explain the resort to threats and violence by people who call themselves Christians: they can’t argue their case rationally.
Rather than allowing the exploration of this or any other meaning emerging from the exhibit, the terrorists who threatened the artist and the CCP with physical harm and even death, as well as the terrorists in Congress who’re threatening them with the use of the powers of the state to compel conformity with their own beliefs, have once again succeeded in stunting not only artistic expression in this country but free expression itself.
The CCP board chair and members’ admission that they took the exhibit down because of the threats against them and the artist, and the possibility and reality of vandalism, is a lesson that won’t be lost to those whose mission in life is to downgrade everything in this country to their level by forcing on everyone their views, whether in politics or religion, the way people dress, their sexual preferences, or even their behavior in the bedroom.
It’s the very same groups whose mantra when issues of free expression and human rights arise is that neither of these are absolute, while demonstrating in word and deed that their right to attack, demonize, and even harm those whose views they don’t agree with is limitless. The cyber terrorists who debase the Internet echo the same claim, and by insulting and inciting hatred for those they don’t agree with, similarly demonstrate that for them, free expression is absolute while limited for those with different views.
And yet free expression is indeed not absolute, the only acceptable limit being the harm it can do to individuals or society, rather than whether some find instances of it offensive.
In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten published a series of 12 cartoons depicting Islam’s prophet Muhammed, and Islam itself, in ways Muslims thought offensive. The newspaper argued that the publication was well within its right to publish the cartoons as a form of free expression.
Protests broke out in Muslim countries, including bombings and the burning of Danish embassies and attacks on the embassies of other Western countries. Critics of the cartoons described them as racist and blasphemous, while supporters claimed that they were, in a world threatened by terrorism, both relevant as well as legitimate forms of free expression.
The threats and acts of violence against Danish citizens, Danish embassies, and other Western countries were correctly condemned, and the right of Jyllands Posten to express its views affirmed, but its publication of the cartoons was subjected to criticism on the basis of the journalism code of ethics which mandates that the possibility of causing harm to society as well as individuals is a legitimate limit to free expression.
Although cartoons rather than paintings were involved, the right to free expression was nevertheless also at issue. Regardless of the threats and actual incidents of violence, the Danish government imposed no sanctions against Jyllands Posten, despite the violence and unrest the cartoons provoked. A Danish court ruled that the publication of the cartoons did not constitute a criminal offense.
Malacañang has taken the same tack. While offending certain groups, the CCP exhibit has harmed neither society nor individuals. The Palace announced that it will not remove the CCP board members (although the visual arts director has resigned), and has frowned on any attempt to sue the artist. But from Congress have come discordant, ill- informed voices, some of which, in addition to threatening to cut the CCP budget, have attacked the artist and the CCP. Unfortunately the CCP board’s decision to yield to the threats is disturbing, constituting surrender to censorship, and establishing a precedent that could very well be used to apply to anything else in the future that any group may consider offensive to its tastes and beliefs. What’s next, a novel or short story, a film or a sculpture? Perhaps a public lecture? An editorial cartoon, an essay, a poem, a column?