POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 12 August 2010, Thursday
Freedom of Feedback
The topic that will not die. That’s the storm artist Mideo Cruz unleashed with the recent exhibit of his controversial work “Politeismo” at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
That the artwork would offend religious sensibilities in this predominantly Roman Catholic country was a given. The artist expected as much, and in fact deliberately created his work as an artistic statement to provoke people to think about idolatry and, in extension, the role of religion in Philippine culture and their own lives.
However, no one expected how intense and massive the public reaction would be, or that the controversy would go global via the Internet.
The fallout was extensive. Politicians took up cudgels in behalf of the Church – Manila congressman Amado Bagatsing delivered a fiery privilege speech denouncing the work, prompting fellow lawmaker and former First Lady Imelda Marcos to have the exhibit shut down with one phone call. This is turn led to the resignation of Karen Flores, chief of the CCP’s visual arts division, which she announced yesterday at a forum at the University of the Philippines Art Studies Department.
What I found interesting about the entire thing was the extent of the public discourse which came from a myriad points-of-view. Some focused on the work’s artistic merit. Writer Sarah Grutas Tweeted, “Whether Mideo Cruz’s artwork is anti-Christ or anti-Church or not is beside the point. What needs to be addressed in the first place is whether Cruz’s artwork has any artistic merit at all. Does it even deserve public/national discourse? Maganda ba? Original ba? Art nga ba?”
Some opined on the responsible creation of art. Digital media artist Bea Lapa said, “Not all artists are behind [Mideo]. Many digital and new media artists do not want to be associated with this kind of work because we worked so hard honing our craft…I am not even Catholic, but I can see why such disrespect for powerful symbols could lead to chaos. As my brother, a sculptor, said, if we just express without burden of responsibility then we are no better than monkeys with paintbrushes.”
Others took up the issue of censorship. Artists’ Arrest, an “alliance composed of emerging and established artists and cultural activists…from the grassroots, alternative, and independent sectors”, posted a statement on Facebook:
“At this point, any defense or attack of the artwork “Poleteismo” by Mideo Cruz is already moot and academic because it will always be subjective…as it happens, the debate surrounding the artwork has been focused largely on its artistic and moral merits at the expense of calling our attention to what we think are more disturbing actions: the demand of a certain faction of the Catholic church for the resignation of the CCP officials; the vandalism of the artwork and in effect the CCP gallery in which it is in exhibit; and the decision of the CCP to close the exhibit.
“Peace and Beauty”, painting by Mideo Cruz. From the artist’s Facebook page.
“We call on the CCP board to rethink its position about the closing of the exhibit for it already constitutes censorship. We also appeal to artists and citizens to see the higher social wager at stake in this situation: our freedom of expression. We join other artists and groups in the action to defend our right to express ourselves.”
Los Angeles-based Filipino musician Ray takes a pragmatic stance: “Mideo may well be a rabble-rouser, whose installation only aims to critique our colonial mindset and has stopped short of exploring its roots that go way before the arrival of Magellan (who, at best, only managed to shift that primal spirituality’s direction to a western and Judaeo-Christian orientation even as it moderately succeeded to blend in its animistic origins).
“If some art tucked in a secluded corner of the CCP – whose offensiveness may have been well unknown if not for the recent undue interest – offends anyone, there is less energy expended in ignoring it completely and engaging in more fruitful endeavors. If one finds an overpowering need to expend more energy, try exercise.”
On my blog, where I had posted my previous column which carried an interview with Mideo, 90% of the comments were laced with profanity, and 80% revolved around the thought “What if it were the picture of your mother, father, or other family member that had a penis stuck on it? How would you feel?” The insights here are that people are equating the defaced pictures of Jesus, Mary, and God with their relatives – in other words, Jesus et al. are considered part of the Filipino family – and that reciprocity is a significant value in our collective culture.
Looking at the big picture, what we should appreciate about this entire debate is our freedom of speech as manifested in public discourse of the matter. Topics such as this will always be viewed subjectively. There will always be adherents for either side, and never the twain shall meet.
But to be able to talk about such things freely, to give rein to opinions for or against, is a liberty that we should not take for granted. There are many countries under repressive regimes where such conversation is forbidden and severely sanctioned if against the state’s position.
Social media played a large part in spreading thoughts about this topic. Through the Internet and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, feedback was instantaneous.
Feedback is integral to the communication process. “Communication is useless without feedback” – It completes the whole process of communication, sustains and makes it continuous; serves a basis for measuring the effectiveness of communication and for future planning; and paves the way for the generation of new ideas (Seun, 2010).
It’s good to see our right to freedom of speech getting a workout. But freedom of expression as claimed by artists is another matter. Public censure is a form of censorship, imposed by society; the shutdown of the exhibit by CCP in response to political pressure is a manifestation, as are the statements made by various politicians including the President.
“See Through”, painting by Mideo Cruz. From the artist’s public Facebook page.
If Mideo Cruz and his “Politeismo” caused offense, it has also generated new ideas, shown us the role of religion in our lives, and revealed the most effective channels for communication and feedback.
It also tested the boundaries of freedom of expression. Now we know how far an artist can go pushing the limits before social sanctions are imposed. If only for that, Mideo deserves our thanks. ***
Image of Imelda Marcos here.