By Constantino C. Tejero
Perception is all. Perspective is all.
With this in mind, one can turn the bishops on their heads by drawing a few biblical allusions for their bête noire of the moment, artist Mideo M. Cruz: a voice crying in the wilderness; a prophet ostracized in his own land—or just another charlatan.
This arose from the overheated debate over Cruz’s art installation “Politeismo,” part of the University of Santo Tomas alumni-artists’ exhibition “Kulô” at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Bulwagang Juan Luna (Main Gallery).
Cruz is a Thirteen Artists awardee, conferred by the CCP in 2003. He is one of our more uncompromising artists, with the likes of Alwin Reamillo, Wire Tuazon, Henri Cainglet, Romeo Lee, José Tence Ruiz, Louie Cordero, José Legaspi.
He appears committed to his art and doesn’t seem to care whether his artwork is financially lucrative, well-liked by collectors, or puts his life and limb at risk. Typical of his confrontational art is “Politeismo,” an installation of collage and assemblage of found objects.
What ups the ante is the artist’s reconstitution of the venerated icons of the Cristo Rey, the Sagrada Familia, the Virgin Mary, the rosary and the cross, incorporating or juxtaposing them with condoms, wooden penises, McDonald’s mascot, Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola, in a stream of free association that plays like a visual equivalent of “Finnegans Wake.”
Significance and signification
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, understandably, first sounded the alarm, meriting space on front pages and being editorialized even by newscasters. “Blasphemy!” was bandied about (the precise word should be sacrilege).
For weeks thence, the artist was savaged by critics, until the discourse was no longer rational, going beyond the significance and signification of the whole exhibit. The debate had turned visceral, crying to heaven for human blood.
Cruz’s critics went below the belt, advising him to go to a psychiatrist or threatening him with incarceration, if not hellfire. A couple vandalized the installation.
(Shouldn’t those vandals be the ones who ought to seek psychiatric help? Or be haled into court for destruction of property, defamation and attempted arson?)
And who would breeze into the gallery one day but the founder of the CCP herself, former First Lady and now Rep. Imelda Romualdez Marcos? This patroness of arts and letters used to be feared and abhorred by progressive elements of the art community during martial law, conjuring images of Lady Macbeth, Maleficent, Morgan le Fay, mistress of sulfur and mandrake.
As she walked around the gallery with her retinue, everyone awaited with trepidation. The verdict: Preposterous!
She looked unflappable, but she was, of course, scandalized by the artist’s obsession with his penis. When she saw it, she nonchalantly said: “Even tribal people cover their privates with loincloth.”
On seeing the condom, she blithely commented something about the thing as an agent of death while God was pro-life and for procreation.
She believed, though, that there was no need for CCP officials to resign or the artist to be penalized. Improbably, she proved to be more Christian in tolerance than others; more catholic in taste than the so-called Catolico cerrado (an oxymoron).
Cult of the phallus
Finally, things fell apart, the center couldn’t hold. The war of attrition waged by a vociferous public, plus a “request” from Malacañang, closed down the exhibit last Tuesday. The following day, CCP Visual Arts Division director Karen Flores resigned.
How does one look at a piece of art? Without necessarily understanding it, one may approach it from a sociological, psychological, formalist or moral angle. All approaches are valid, though each is rather self-limiting.
That is, if one looks at a piece from a Marxist, feminist or biographical perspective, one works only within the constraints of Marxism, feminism or the artist’s life, disregarding the subject’s other probably richer aspects.
Try the archetypal approach. It seems to be the most appropriate to this kind of thing, as it is all-embracing, with a little of everything and a focus on the cultural significance of the subject.
As Cruz’s critics primarily focus on his dildos and condoms, we can here investigate the cult of the phallus (which gave birth to Greek tragedy). It is racial memory embedded in the subconscious.
Since the Stone Age through the Classical period to the Renaissance and the Baroque to the present, the human genitalia has been a component of great art. Paleolithic art is replete with genitals, specifically those fertility statuettes such as the “Venus of Willendorf,” a figurine with anatomical exaggeration but the pubic triangle painstakingly scratched on the limestone.
Genital display had been the order of the day since. Among the most prominent are from the Archaic through the Classical and Hellenistic periods: the kourous (male youth, thought to be an image of Apollo); heroic statues of Hermes and Bacchus; the “Apollo Belvedere,” the “Diskobolos,” “Spear Bearer,” “Sleeping Satyr,” “Weary Herakles,” “Aphrodite and Pan,” “The Dying Gaul.”
Cult of paganism
On the cusp of the Renaissance, Dominican friar Savonarola inflamed people with sermons attacking the “cult of paganism.” This sent the art world in a tizzy. One of the victims was Botticelli, who duly burned his “pagan” paintings and was reduced to doing religious pieces.
Thanks be to God, the friar met a fiery end. Had he triumphed, we wouldn’t have now those mammoth masterpieces from the High Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque: “The Creation of Adam,” “Expulsion from the Garden,” “The Last Judgment,” the “David”; Raphael’s “Galatea,” Titian’s “Bacchanal” and “Danaë,” Vasari’s “Perseus and Andromeda”; the various rosy Crucifixions adorning churches (one Mannerist version shows the Crucified Christ’s pubic hair).
It must be noted that most of these anatomically correct pieces had sacred functions before they were profaned and secularized into numerous odalisques and majas desnudas. They were religious in origin, even the various fertility venuses of Paleolithic art and the funerary and votive kouroi of the Archaic period.
Cruz’s reconstitution of icons is not even unprecedented. There was that notorious case in the 1980s, Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” an image of the crucifix submerged in urine. Described as “the original shock art,” the piece was hammered by Christian protesters.
There was also Chris Ofili’s dung-embellished painting-collage of a black Virgin Mary a decade later.
In fact, Cruz’s colleagues Legaspi, Reamillo and Cordero have had their share of desecration of Christian iconography.
In fact, “Relic,” that cross with the phallus, is an old artwork Cruz exhibited in 2005. And in the 2003 edition of the “Sungdu-an” exhibition, he had dozens of these wooden phalluses surrounding a doll in a Maria Clara attire.
Those, of course, escaped the eye of the CBCP. Only regular gallery-goers saw them. So no ruckus, rumpus or fracas was raised.
It didn’t help that Cruz wasn’t too articulate when explicating his art. He could hardly put across his arguments about the phallus as symbol of patriarchy; the commodification of art; consumerism and materialism as the new world order; the commercialization of religion as the new idolatry—all that jargon-filled justification of his installation lost on a bloodthirsty crowd.
Mystery of Incarnation
It now appears many of these Catholics have not fully grasped the nature of their religion. There are some things in their faith that they cannot countenance, such as the mystery of the Incarnation, a prime doctrine of the Church wherein Jesus Christ is completely both God and man.
Yes, we know he suffered and died as humans do—but if we believe the second person of the Trinity did, indeed, assume human form, doesn’t it follow that he also possessed physical human attributes, such as genitalia? This the faithful can hardly comprehend, let alone confront. They see the Day of Circumcision as a religious rite of passage but not as proof of the presence of Christ’s penis.
Religious icons are just outer manifestations of an inner faith. You can haggle over their prices outside Quiapo Church. However, some of the faithful treat them like graven images meant for worship, going against the injunction of the First Commandment.
One must neither be a conservative nor a liberal when one approaches the realm of art, be it in a state-sponsored institution, on a street corner, at a mall, private home, or the nunnery. An open mind can go a long way. Self-righteousness won’t get you far.
And then you ask the crucial question: But, is it art?
Good question. But then, who can tell? With all the postmodernism and conceptualism going around, can anyone claim to have the last word? Are you the measure of all truths? (What presumption.)
Today the conservatives may have won, but it is a Pyrrhic victory, short-lived and costly. It has become a cycle since time immemorial.
There is something that cannot be denied the artists. If they stop Cruz now, someone else will do it in the next few years. Because these people are merely giving expression to the memory of the race.