Watch Me Entertain Myself!

Sacha Guitry once said, "You can pretend to be serious, but you can't pretend to be witty." Oh yes, I'm the great pretender.
(pilot episode: 20 January 2004)

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Who Art In Heaven?

What is art? What is freedom of expression?

My initial knee-jerk reaction to those who were against Mideo Cruz’s art work (which I have personally seen for myself before all this hullabaloo and vandalization occurred) was simple: irritation.

But then religious groups threatened to sue the CCP and the artist. People started tweeting and posting on their Facebook status that freedom of expression has limits, and that art should respect other people’s sensibilities. Imelda Marcos jumped into the fray. And my blood began to boil. Who are these neo-fascists? Who are they to be the arbiters of truth? And who said art is only what’s true, good and beautiful?

But then I decided to step back and ask myself. Is it still art if it offends my sensibilities? Because I’m not too religious these days, Mideo’s exhibit didn’t shock me one bit; in fact, I was quite blase (or at the most, mildly amused) by the whole thing. In fact, I thought that the exhibit was too unsubtle, too obvious, too in-your-face (I’m just more partial to art that’s subtle and forces you to think). But it obviously offended others.

So I wondered how I’d react if someone came up with a painting or an exhibit that depicted gay activists like Harvey Milk and Larry Kramer in Nazi uniforms. Or showing an all-male orgy (wherein everyone’s engaged in unsafe sex) happening inside what is clearly an Auschwitz gas chamber. 

If I were to be perfectly honest, I’d personally be offended. And while I do think that the artist has the right to exhibit his works, I would then worry about how this piece of art work can affect others who view it. What if it incites a viewer to further discriminate against homosexuals? How would I react if someone beside me says, “Ay, oo nga. Salot nga ang mga bakla sa lipunan.”

Let’s step down from high art and go to popular art. What if there’s a popular song sung by an act that’s popular and well-loved? What if instead of a pro-gay song like “Jay,” the Eraserheads (stay with me on this one, this is obviously a “what if”) came out with, “Bakla, Bakla, Bakit Ka Pa Ginawa?” Or a daily teleserye that depicted several gay characters as pedophiles preying on tweens and teens?

Then I’d really worry about those works spreading a message of intolerance and hate.

Let us widen the scope further. How about allowing a painting that depicts Filipinos as mere domestic helpers and scavengers, circling a billiard table in a layout replicating the “dogs playing billiards” scene which we see in so many Saudi-made pop paintings? What about a sculpture that shows Malakas and Maganda as pole-dancing sex workers, except the poles are made of bamboo? How would we feel if the works were done by a Filipino artist? Or will those feelings change if they were done by a foreigner?

But are they art? What if the paintings are excellently-crafted, the use of colors and its composition flawless? What if the songs are very catchy, melodically perfect and lyrically witty and crafty? What if the medium is excellent, and the only thing that offends me is the message? Will I be as cavalier in saying, “They’re free to say whatever they want”?

I know myself enough to say that I will never go out of my way in vandalizing any painting or sculpture. And I will most probably not buy any record or refuse to watch a particular program that I personally find offensive. But can I demand that radio stations not play the song because it not only offends my sensibilities, it spreads hatred towards gays? If I get all the gays on Planet Romeo and Grindr combined to sign a petition asking that all radio stations pull out “Bakla, Bakla, Bakit Ka Pa Ginawa?” from their playlist, are we then guilty of bullying and censorship?

Perhaps one can raise the argument that those kinds of pieces, whether painting or music or performance, are not “art” but rather “propaganda.” So we go back to my first question: what is art? And who died and made Imelda or the Catholic Church “God of All That Is Art?”

Leni Rienfenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is a film commissioned by Adolf Hitler himself that showed the 1934 Nazi party rally. It is called a propaganda film, and yet Rienfenstahl’s use of film “techniques, such as moving cameras, the use of long focus lenses to create a distorted perspective, aerial photography, and revolutionary approach to the use of music and cinematography, have earned Triumph recognition as one of the greatest films in history.” That the film has artistic merit is clear; that it was also seen as promoting Hitler’s cause is also clear. And we all know what happened after Hitler’s rise to power.

Whether or not we get a precise definition of art, in the end what is clear to me is this. If we are to espouse freedom of expression, if we are to respect other people’s ideas even if they go directly against our beliefs, then we must be ready to allow others to offend us with their art as well.

That’s the price of democracy.


Will said...

Back when I was doing theater in college I learned about our theatrical responsibilities as artists. If we're staging a play that involves, say, an Ifugao tribal ritual, it should be done properly so as to avoid offending any particular group. Now I ask myself if this is exactly the same case when it comes to Catholic sensibilities. I find myself torn between the two sides as I am also an advocate for freedom of expression considering how I highly value this so-called artistic responsibilities.

heavensent said...

Quite easy to make fun of Catholic (or Christian) sensibilities.

Let's see if this artist would have the guts to apply his "art" on the Q'uran or another important object of the Muslim faith...

marky said...

well said.

joelmcvie said...

@WILL: Given your Ifugao tribal ritual as an example, my question is this: can you tweak the ritual just like that, if only to drive home a point? Can the tweaking be defended as "for art's sake"?

More importantly, can one purposely change the ritual for the sake of fulfilling an artistic goal? Is that being irresponsible? Or does art (and artists) have the license to do just that?

@HEAVENSENT: I find it more acceptable that a Catholic poke fun or question his own faith; at least he's in a position to say, "Well, I know my faith, that's why I can poke fun at it." Perhaps that is the reason why he applied his art to the Catholic faith and not to the Muslim faith.

karla said...

yes, we must be ready to allow others to offend us if we are to espouse freedom of expression.

however, the ccp is a public institution supported by taxpayers' money.

should christian taxpayers be asked to shoulder the bill just so this artist can offend their deeply-held religious beliefs?

if mideo had presented his art work in a private gallery, then that would have been ok. but at the ccp? i beg to disagree.

joelmcvie said...

@KARLA: That is an interesting point you make, because that's where the question of separation of church and state comes in. If the separation was a lot more delineated, then one can argue that the CCP's subsidy is from the people, regardless of religion or beliefs.

Them bewailing the fact that their taxes were used to fund an art work that they feel insulted their religion is similar to them complaining that their taxes are being used to buy condoms. To me, that is not an issue of private versus public institutions; to me, it's just religious bellyaching and bullying.

rudeboy said...

Jesus, how the sheep bleat.

Make them stop screaming, Clarice.

joelmcvie said...

@RUDEBOY: Baaaaa, ram, ewe! Baaaaa, ram, ewe! To your sheep, your flock, your fleece be true!

the geek said...

well, what they say about 'banned arts'... they will later resurface to be masterpieces (for one, voltaire's candide).

these groups, they increased the market value of mideo cruz's works...

karla said...


"if the separation was a lot more delineated, then one can argue that the CCP's subsidy is from the people, regardless of religion or beliefs."

sensya for sounding pedantic but i find this line of argument troubling because the implication would be basically depriving taxpayers of their right to decide how their taxes are used based on their beliefs and priorities.

it would be like saying: “leave your beliefs behind before entering the bir since, anyway, taxes are for the general upkeep of society and your politicians know exactly where your money should go.”

for me, this is a question of accountability.

btw, i am a supporter of the rh bill (even helped in the campaign for its passage in a previous congress) and you are right that the “taxpayers” argument has been used in opposing the bill.

but the difference is, in my opinion, pnoy has an electoral mandate while these ccp officials are mere appointees and are unelected.

manalo muna sila sa barangay before they can use my taxes to insult my beliefs.

joelmcvie said...

@KARLA: You made a distinction between elected officials versus appointees. For me the distinction is irrelevant; all appointed officials directly answer to the President, who directly answers to the people. So regardless of whether they’re voted or appointed, government officials have the same mandate, which is to fulfill the duties of their office. And ultimately they also have the same bosses: the people.

We also have a difference in opinion as to the extent of the separation between Church and State. Yes, I actually believe that people should “leave (their) beliefs behind before entering the BIR.” (I don’t agree with the rest of the sentence because I don’t think all politicians know exactly where our money should go to or not. But that’s a different, separate issue.)

I believe we should leave religion out of government policy. By this I don’t mean that the State will never be cognizant of religious beliefs; it just means that the State should be allowed to use our taxes in a manner fit for every Filipino, regardless of religion or region. This also means that policies should not favor one religion over the other. Thus the State must be allowed to use public funds to provide condoms, despite its use being offensive to the opponents of the RH Bill, because the non-Catholic Filipinos have the right to use a condom.

If public policy should be forced to consider religious sensitivities in their agenda, imagine the Babel-like confusion when this is pushed to extremes. For one, all those public holidays that are religious in nature (Christmas, New Year, All Saints, etc) should cease to be non-working, because it’s an insult to those who do not celebrate those dates. (Or conversely, they can declare all religious celebrations of all religions present in the Philippines to be public holidays instead. Students would love that.) You mentioned not wanting your taxes to be used to insult your beliefs. If government kowtows to religious sensitivities, then government subsidy (which comes from our taxes) for the National Food Authority should be pulled out because it partially funds piggeries and slaughter houses that are an insult to Muslims. (While we’re at it, there shouldn’t be any pork barrel given at all. Joke.)

Let your taxes be for the State to use, and let your offerings during Offertory be for the Church to use.

Regarding the idea of beliefs being insulted, I will tackle that in a separate blog entry.

House of Queens said...

While reading the different articles about Mideo Cruz's "art" - I can't help but think of the reaction that the faithful Muslims had on Salman Rushdie's - "Satanic Verses". Sir Rushdie received death threats for that book. I wonder how the Catholics - who are now speaking up on this issue - reacted when the news on Rushdie broke out in the 90s. I bet they would have been indifferent to our Muslim brothers' reaction towards the book.