I’d been following the recent controversy over the ‘Kulo’ (Boil) exhibit over at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), from the initial news splash about Mideo Cruz’s exhibit to the shitstorm that followed to the closing of the exhibit and resignation of CCP visual arts department head Karen Flores and the artists’ response that followed, and I have this much to say:
Art should be free to shock. Art should antagonize. Art should shake up established norms and thinking and provoke discussion. Otherwise, what is it good for?
Mind you, I’m not saying that artists and the art they create should enjoy zero responsibility, or that they should be totally immune from all consequences; if they offend, why, the offended have every right to protest right back, to agitate, demonstrate, declare in print or audiovisual media their indignation. Viewers and readers have every right to stake out a position and loudly agree or disagree, to boycott or even picket the exhibit’s entrance. That’s a right too, every bit as important as the artist’s to freely create.
You can even attack the work from an aesthetic point of view, criticize not the artist’s morals or intentions (which are irrelevant anyway) but his skill, as Lito Zulueta does in an Inquirer column. Of all the protests against Mr. Cruz, I find Mr. Zulueta’s piece the most persuasive.
Artist act; viewers react. That’s what is known as dialogue, the discourse between two opposing views (for an equally if not better reasoned and well-written opposing view, check out Luis Teodoro’s thoughts on the matter). Dialogue is a good and healthy thing; what isn’t healthy is when the dialogue is silenced, the discourse interrupted, the exhibit closed down, and an atmosphere of threats and fear pervades. When you can’t see what the fuss is all about, you can’t talk about it; when you can’t talk about it, you forget, and perhaps stop talking (or you stop talking because you’re afraid to continue).
Mr. Zulueta’s article condemning Mr. Cruz’s artwork is a good thing; it’s two opposing parties responding to each other (or at least one responding to the other–far as I know Mr. Cruz has yet to reply to Mr. Zulueta). Congressional leaders demanding that the CCP budget be cut and worse, cyber terrorists threatening violence and death are not a good thing; they encourage silence and fear, and silence is a friend of censorship, and censorship as an active and consistent policy is in turn an essential condition to foster and maintain dictatorships throughout the world.
Not saying the Philippines is presently a dictatorship–far from it. But from here to September 21, 1972 isn’t so much a distance of some thirty-three years as it is a distance of some three to four inches–roughly the distance a pen has to travel to write someone’s signature onto a document declaring martial law. And all that was needed to send that pen scribbling over those three inches was a decision on the part of one man, and enough people behind the man to enforce his signature, the document, everything that followed. If it takes a handful of men deciding to act to send the country spiraling down a toilet bowl for fourteen years, how many will it take to repeat what happened today? Starting with the right of free expression? Not much, I’ll wager. Not if we keep silent, do nothing, let them have their way with us.
Am I making sense? Is this too much of a leap I’m taking, are the dots I’m connecting too far apart and crazy? That’s for you to decide. Discourse and dialogue, not silence and forgetting. If you disagree with me, let’s talk–but for god’s sake, please don’t stay silent.