pop goes the world: son of a breach

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today18 August 2011, Thursday

Son of a Breach

Artist Mideo Cruz’s decision to affix a wooden phallus on the image of Jesus Christ as part of the deliberately provocative imagery in his “Politeismo” has led to an entire nation’s revisiting of its cultural notions of religion, art, politics, and the separation of church and state.

The discourse on the topic has become voluminous and will inspire many future theses and dissertations. Fresh insights into the issue may still be gleaned, especially when the artwork in question is compared cross-culturally to other art or media works.

Consider this: Mideo’s “Politeismo” may be seen as a “breaching experiment”. In that sense, it parallels the work of comedians John Safran and Sasha Baron-Cohen that deliberately seek to disturb, distress, and overthrow popular conceptions of what is normal and what is not.

In social psychology, a breaching experiment “seeks to examine people’s reactions to violations of commonly accepted social rules or norms.” It is often a class assignment in sociology and anthropology classes. A professor of mine at the University of the Philippines-Diliman College of Mass Communication is wont to post Facebook statuses that provoke reactions, which he then studies. For instance, he once changed his relationship status to “single”. We all know that he has been happily married for several decades. His post unleashed a torrent of comments which he proceeded to dissect afterwards using the appropriate communication theories. I believe he had a good chuckle over that.

Safran questions the boundaries of religion and race. In a now-famous skit, he knocked on the doors of Mormon believers in Salt Lake City, introducing himself as an atheist “missionary”. An elderly man tells him crossly, “I’m a bishop in the LDS church.” Undaunted, Safran asks, “Have you considered atheism?” The look on the man’s face is priceless. Then there was the time he applied for membership in the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, conveniently omitting to tell the KKK Grand Dragon that he was half-Jewish. The resulting exchange when he is found out is a valuable glimpse into the nature of discriminatory organizations.

Sasha Baron-Cohen, operating some years later in the same vein, took the shock attack to a different level with his heavily sexualized “Borat” and “Bruno” film characters. With “Bruno’s” naked penis given close-ups on wide-screen, the viewer is forced to face his/her own attitudes to the public depiction of sex in a non-pornographic context.

“Politeismo” breached prevailing cultural norms on what art is and how religion should be treated in art. It is a violation of norms that shakes up our definitions and expectations of behavior. Religious sentiment is so deeply embedded in Filipino culture that this particular artwork generated intense emotion not often manifested for other matters. This is the reason the controversy is still in the news. As far as “scandals” in this country go, it’s long-lived.

Would a continued breaching of these norms lead to a change in the way we define “normal”, “sacrilege”, and “art”?

Is this what our society is afraid of – the possibility, even the inevitability, of change?

Final takeaway? If you don’t like it, ignore. Says mandala artist Stephanie Smith, “It is always your choice how you spend your energy.”

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University of the Philippines College of Arts & Letters professor Joey Baquiran is reminding the public of the UMPIL (Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas) activities later this month.

In addition to the reading on 25-26 August of papers by various scholars on Rizal’s works (mentioned in my July 14 column) at UP-CAL’s Claro M. Recto Hall, the UMPIL members’ convention on August 27 will feature the Panayam Adrian Cristobal (public intellectual lecture series), a booklaunch, literary forum, and the Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas awarding rite which honors “Filipino writers who have produced outstanding works and have dedicated their lives and talents to the development, propagation, and promotion of Philippine literature.”

The first lecturer of the Adrian E. Cristobal Lecture series was poet Gemino Abad. The 2011 lecturer is National Artist for Literature Virgilio S. Almario. His book Rizal: Makata (Anvil Publishing, 2011) will be launched after the lecture.

The Writers Forum topic is “Social Realism and the Writing of the Contemporary Filipino Novel” featuring fictionists Mario I. Miclat (author of The Secret of the Eighteen Mansions), Genevieve Asenjo (Lumbay ng Dila), and Edgar Samar (Walong Diwata ng Pagkahulog).

The 2011 Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas awardees are Herminio Beltran (Poetry in Filipino), Fanny A. Garcia (Fiction in Filipino), Elmer A. Ordoñez (Essay in English), Crisostomo Ilustre (Fiction in Iluko), Maria Luisa S. Defante-Gibraltar (Fiction in Hiligaynon), and Sze Manchi (Poetry in Chinese). Paz Verdades M. Santos will receive the Gawad Paz Marquez for Outstanding Educator in the field of literature and The Varsitarian of the University of Santo Tomas the Gawad Pedro Bucaneg.

* * * * *

Perpi Tiongson wrote in response to my July 7 column on Mirana Medina’s Rizal films in Filipino Sign Language: “…FSL does not have its roots in American Sign Language or Signing Exact English, but dates all the way back to the 17th century…Archival documents dating to 1604 relate how Spanish Jesuit priest Raymundo del Prado used signs in the catechism and baptism of Deaf men in Dulac, Leyte. This is the earliest record of signs being used in the Philippines, although signs may have existed long before this.

“ASL came to the Philippines only in the first decade of the 1900s (more than 300 years later) during the American colonization, and heightened its influence on FSL in the 1960s with the coming of Peace Corps Volunteers…Thank you for the time and I hope you can extend courtesy to the Deaf community by correcting this misinformation.”  ***

“Politeismo” closeup from the artist’s public Facebook page. John Safran image here. Sasha Baron-Cohen, as himself (left) and as “Bruno” (right), here. Prof. Baquiran’s photo from his Facebook page. Dean Miclat here.

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2 Comments on pop goes the world: son of a breach

  1. Chito Limson
    18 August 2011 at 9:30 am (2165 days ago)

    Great article as usual, Jenny. Seems to me “social breaching experiment: is akin to “trolling” but with a redeeming academic purpose.

  2. JennyO
    18 August 2011 at 10:06 am (2165 days ago)

    Thanks, Chito! And ‘trolling’ is exactly what my kids said too. :)

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