Archive of ‘history’ category

pop goes the world: a primer on the national artist award

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste

Published in two parts: Manila Standard-Today,  19 July 2012 and Manila Standard-Today, 26 July 2012

A Primer on the National Artist Award

The Philippines was plunged into mourning by the recent death of the media-dubbed “Comedy King”, actor Rodolfo “Dolphy” Quizon.

To a degree unprecedented, the nation avidly followed the 24/7 media reports and coverage of his illness, death, wake, and funeral rites over several weeks until its culmination with the interment of the actor in his massive metal casket last July 15.

The Dolphenomenon spawned renewed interest in the actor’s life and his career. Born into an impoverished family, from an early age he had to work selling peanuts at theaters to support himself and loved ones.

Given a break to learn the thespian’s craft and allowed to hone his technique in vaudeville skits, he learned to sing, dance, and act, and found he had a knack for comedy. This he parlayed into fame and fortune with his drag-dressed portrayal of gays and carefree enactment of poor men in films and on television.

Not only was Dolphy an excellent all-around actor (all too rare in these times where mere good looks without talent are enough to merit media exposure), he was also that uncommon thing, a genuinely good man, who had not a bad or mean thing to say about anybody, who welcomed all into his fold, who emptied his pockets to help those less fortunate.

It is not surprising then that a grateful and sentimental nation wishes to honor such an admirable man in any way it can. Thus the clamor for the conferment upon Dolphy of the National Artist Award.

This was debated as early as 2009. In a July 5 article that appeared in another publication, former NCCA executive director Cecille Guidote-Alvarez said in a radio interview that were it not for the disapproval of Dr. Nicanor Tiongson at the second stage of deliberations, Dolphy could have received the award back then.

A noted author, academician, and critic, Dr. Tiongson was once vice-president and artistic director of the CCP in the late 1980s to mid 1990s and chairman of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board.

Tiongson replied soon after saying that the “accusations” made by Guidote-Alvarez are “selective and misleading,” making it “appear that one person (in this case, myself) can actually engineer the outcome of the second stage of the National Artist selection process, when in reality it is a council of about 20 experts representing various disciplines that chooses, through majority and secret vote, the candidates to be short-listed for the final deliberations.

The selection of a National Artist is done in three stages by three bodies and it is simply impossible for any one person to influence all of them into making the same decision.”

Tiongson also said Guidote-Alvarez’s revelation was a “grave breach of the confidentiality” since she was co-chair of the 2009 National Artist Awards Selection Committee, and questioned its timing, made three years after the fact.

Tiongson also clarified that the opinion he expressed on Dolphy’s body of work “in no way diminishes my continuing admiration and respect for Dolphy as a most talented comedian and a very kind human being.”

The conflict between the two led to more questions on the award, its criteria, and its very purpose.

What is the National Order of Artists?

According to information on the National Commission for Culture and the Arts website, it is “the highest national recognition given to Filipino individuals who have made significant contributions to the development of Philippine arts; namely, Music, Dance, Theater, Visual Arts, Literature, Film and Broadcast Arts, and Architecture and Allied Arts. The order is jointly administered by the NCCA and Cultural Center of the Philippines and conferred by the President of the Philippines upon recommendation by both institutions.”

What are the criteria?

Apart from citizenship requirements, the National Artist award is to be given to “artists who through the content and form of their works have contributed in building a Filipino sense of nationhood…who have pioneered in a mode of creative expression or style, thus, earning distinction and making an impact on succeeding generations of artists…who have created a substantial and significant body of works and/or consistently displayed excellence in the practice of their art form thus enriching artistic expression or style; and…who enjoy broad acceptance through prestigious national and/or international recognition, such as the Gawad CCP Para sa Sining, CCP Thirteen Artists Award, and NCCA Alab ng Haraya; critical acclaim and/or reviews of their works; respect and esteem from peers.”

The NCCA also recognizes folk and traditional artists through the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan or the National Living Treasures Award. Established in April 1992 through Republic Act No. 7335, the GAMABA honors artists who “reflect the diverse heritage and cultural traditions that transcend their beginnings to become part of our national character” and engage in a traditional art uniquely Filipino and characterized by a “high level of technical and artistic excellence.” Their presence is required at NCCA events such as “the Philippine National Arts Month, the National Heritage Month, and other important national and regional cultural celebrations.”

Palace spokesman Edwin Lacierda said last month that President Benigno Aquino III “personally believes that Dolphy has contributed immensely to the arts. And in fact, in his words, he has contributed tremendously to what we call ‘art for man’s sake’.”

Since it is the NCCA and the CCP that recommends the awardees after much research and discussion, the President himself cannot give the award. Lacierda also cited the temporary restraining order that the Supreme Court issued in 2009, after a group of national artists led by Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera and Dr. Virgilio Almario accused former president Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo of “grave abuse of discretion” for adding the names of director Carlo J. Caparas, Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, architect Francisco Mañosa, and fashion designer Jose “Pitoy” Moreno to the list of National Artist awardees.

The President did give Dolphy an honor that was within the scope of his powers to confer. In November 2010, within a few months of his assumption of office, the President invited the actor to Malacañang Palace to receive the Order of the Grand Collar of the Golden Heart, which was first awarded to humanitarian Helen Keller in 1955.

At the occasion, the comedian joked that he no longer wished to be given the National Artist award, and that at his age, a “National Arthritis Award” would be enough.

It is clear that the conferment of the National Artist award is a multi-layered process that cannot – and should not, like Macapagal-Arroyo tried to do – be influenced by the head of state or partisan politics.

There are strict criteria regarding its bestowal that must be honored if the award is to have any credibility. If it can be conferred without a rigorous and objective selection process, if it can be swayed by sentiment or clamor, it is worthless.

Dolphy could have been given the award upon further deliberation after 2009, if so deemed worthy by the selection committee. However, they could not do so because of the TRO issued by the Supreme Court.

At the moment, then, it is up to the SC to take the next step, so that the NCCA and the CCP can get on with its task of sifting the nominees for this supreme cultural honor. It is too late to award it to the living Dolphy; perhaps he may still receive it posthumously?

As to its purpose of the National Artist award, that remains part of the ongoing discourse. But if we agree that a nation’s art contains and reflects its heart and soul, then it is essential for us to honor its creators, either through such an award, conferred by the state, or through popular acclaim, manifested in the tears and laughter that accompanied the beloved Dolphy to his final rest.   ***

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pop goes the world: anthology

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  5 July 2012, Thursday

Anthology

Last week I received a final “call for manuscripts” notice from University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication dean Dr. Rolando Tolentino, who is collecting critical, personal, popular, and creative non-fiction works for an anthology called “The Ballads of Malakas and Maganda: Marcosian and Imeldific Essays.”

This is a sequel to the “Mondo Marcos” volumes, published in 2010 and edited by Tolentino and veteran journalist Frank Cimatu.

Such a collection would be a significant addition to the histories and memoirs written about the period, a time of struggle and pain, a time that many young people do not know about.

If the stories of that time are unknown or forgotten, how will generations to come benefit from the lessons learned during that time?

Imelda Marcos’s 83rd birthday rolled around last July 2, with a concomitant barrage of posts on social media of pictures of her in the bloom of youth. The comments were mostly flattering, referring to her beauty and singing voice.

At the height of their power, she positioned herself as the semi-divine Maganda of Filipino creation myth, with Ferdinand Marcos as the counterpart Malakas.

Musician David Byrne, who in 2005 recorded a two-CD rock opera with Fatboy Slim called “Here Lies Love” revolving around the Imelda story, has blogged about Imelda’s deliberate assumption of this persona.

Having seen portraits of the Marcos couple in Malacañang, Ilocos, and Leyte, he wrote about their depiction as the “ur-couple of the Philippines…the strong man and the beautiful woman,” with Imelda cast as a “nurturing goddess.”

Many from Generation Y, the millenials, have never even heard of the Marcos couple, except as names in history books. Imelda is still a congresswoman, and even launched a fashion line in 2006 using her recycled belongings; she is known to the youth mostly as some sort of celebrity. Her legacy and that of Ferdinand – Martial Law – is shrugged off as a historical tidbit.

Those who were at the forefront of the struggle during the 1970s will never forget what they endured during Martial Law. One of them is lawyer Eduardo Araullo, who in his student years at UP was a member of the Left. He fought against the dictatorship with blood and bone and life and love laid on the line.

Imprisoned for acts of “subversion”, he recalls being doused with water from cannons, beaten by the military with bats and truncheons, hauled off to detention centers in handcuffs. He tends to downplay his experiences, saying he knew what he was in for.

He was twenty and in the underground when he was arrested by the Metrocom and taken to Camp Crame, where his father visited him. He was asked, “Kaya mo?”

“Kaya ko,” he answered.

Prison was boring, Attorney Ed recalls, and the inmates filled their time with games and sports – basketball, table tennis, Monopoly. He was not released until six months later. He went underground again, and later became a labor lawyer.

Why did he fight against martial law, I asked.

“Because it was wrong.”

What else had he been prepared to give up?

“I was ready to die.”

Would he do it again?

“Yes.”

What did you learn?

“Stand up for what you believe in. It’s worth it.”

It is hard to elicit much from him beyond cerebral responses. I ask, “What did you feel?” Attorney Ed replies, “It was an intellectual exercise.”

Much remains locked inside him. I feel I can go no farther. He will not take me there.

I take my leave of him and wait by the curb for a ride.

He follows me, and whispers, “I still grieve for them, for those who died. I always remember.”

This and similar stories of those years should never be forgotten, because too much went into the weaving of them. Too many lessons were learned that need to be graven in our hearts. Too many people suffered and died for their legacy to be ignored.

If it takes books for us to remember or learn about those years, then we look forward to the publication of Tolentino and Cimatu’s forthcoming anthology.  *** 

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pop goes the world: impeachment as drama

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  12 January 2012, Thursday

Impeachment as Drama

The ubiquity of communication media makes it possible for an entire nation to follow an impeachment trial that, back in the old days before television and television networks seeking to outdo each other in ratings, could only be viewed by a select few.

Government and court proceedings were filtered by information “middlemen” – journalists, writers, reporters – through the processes of agenda-setting and framing, whether performed unconsciously or not. The audience did not use to receive the entirety of the experience. This was made possible later on with the advent of the Internet, to the vastness of which reams of documents and footage could be uploaded. This could not be done in the limited space of print or regular broadcast channels.

With the rampant commercialization of the media, especially television, and the tougher arena brought about by a free-market environment and the number of competitors, networks playing the ratings game are forced to deliver what the public wants, in order to survive. And if the public wants to see more of this and less of the other, programming is developed to cater to those wishes.

Since today’s audience is politically savvy, a highly significant event such as the Corona impeachment trial is being given extensive coverage by the networks and others news organizations and individuals on the Internet.

Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona before the start of his impeachment trial. Image here.

While this easy access to information makes it possible for the audience to craft their own experience by picking and choosing their sources of news, the constant exposure also has a tendency to desensitize. The Corona trial is eagerly watched, almost as if it were the latest telenovela, as if these aspects of our country’s politics and governance were merely plot elements in a play.

The word drama comes from the Greek “to act” or “to do”. It must have characters who, in the course of their lives, somehow become involved in a conflict situation. The narrative follows their actions and reactions to the conflict, which at the end of the play are resolved.

People following the trial cast the characters in their minds as either “hero” or “villain” depending on their personal beliefs and convictions. And because the Internet, unlike traditional print and broadcast media, allow for instant and nearly unlimited feedback, it can bring out the best in people, who share insightful and meaningful comments, and the worst, through “trolls”, vicious-minded people who have no significant analysis and post only cruel and hurtful insults.

The trial is bringing out the true colors of people.

Apart from being seen as a drama, it is also being pegged in public perception as a sporting event. Facebook and Twitter users, especially the latter, post play-by-plays of the proceedings: “Si Cuevas parang nakikipagkwentuhan lang sa Starbucks.” “Dimaandal looks like he could use a beer.” “Bully, o.” Pass the popcorn.

Does this mean we no longer take important events such as impeachment trials seriously? Filipinos as a people have a dramatic nature – “romantic”, a creative writing professor of mine described it. Filipinos tend to exaggerate, inflate, and yes, dramatize even the most trivial of events.

Putting the impeachment trial on the level of a drama or sporting event underscores the tremendous interest that people are taking in the proceedings, because Filipinos care deeply about such things, and elevate telenovelas and the PBA to cult status. Treating the trial like “Flor de Luna” and Corona as bida or contrabida shows that we care what is happening to our country, that we want to participate in this even vicariously, and that if the only way we can be a part of this milestone event is to watch it, then by golly we will.

And we’ll discuss it, over bottles of beer at an after-office inuman or online, because by being aware of the unfolding of events and sharing our opinions on them we enter the play as actors ourselves, and thereby feel – even to a slight degree, even if it is an illusion – in control of our nation’s destiny.

Whatever the outcome of this impeachment, we will already have gained something valuable – we will have learned something more about ourselves as a people.

* * * * *

Award-winning photographer Dominique James, who is now based in the US, recently announced the launch of Blanc Worldwide, an “international photo collective” composed of six photographer-members: Dominique James (Atlanta) and Lester Callanta (Toronto), co-founders; and Kyo Suayan (San Francisco), Michael Mariano (New York), David Fabros (Manila), and Randy Tamayo (Melbourne), founding members.

Their online gallery at http://www.blancworldwide.com exhibits a landscape photograph from each member, available for a limited time to the public as fine art photographic prints.

According to Dominique James, “The two main goals of Blanc Worldwide are to provide professional representation of the Filipino photographers in the international arena, and to make their works available and accessible worldwide. The chosen images for Blanc Worldwide’s exhibition and exclusive print sale depicts aspects of the immediate, primary or accessible location from where each of the photographers is geographically based.”

“This is the first tightly-knit, project-oriented photography collective composed of Filipino photographers of its kind in this digital age that we know of,” he added.  *** 

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aldous huxley: crome yellow

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was an English poet and author, a humanist and pacifist. Some of his novels – Antic Hay, Point Counter Point, and Crome Yellow – dealt with the manners and hypocrisy of the upper class, while Brave New World was a peek into a dystopian future.

Here’s an excerpt from Crome Yellow (1921), where Denis Stone, a young poet, talks to the jaded critic Mr. Scogan:

“That’s the test for the literary mind,” said Denis; “the feeling of magic, the sense that words have power. The technical, verbal part of literature is simply a development of magic. Words are man’s first and most grandiose invention. With language he created a whole new universe; what wonder if he loved words and attributed power to them! With fitted, harmonious words the magicians summoned rabbits out of empty hats and spirits from the elements. Their descendants, the literary men, still go on with the process, morticing their verbal fomulas together, and, before the power of the finished spell, trembling with delight and awe. Rabbits out of empty hats? No, their spells are more subtly powerful, for they evoke emotions out of empty minds. Formulated by their art the most insipid statements become enormously significant.”

Crome Yellow was Huxley’s first published book, and is part of the tradition of English country house stories.Though after this speech by Denis, Mr. Scogan deflates him with a puncturing comment (you have to read the book to get the full flavor of the humor), it’s still an enchanting passage that shows how Huxley felt about words and writing, and it captures exactly how I feel about it, which is what I do, and is my life’s work – it’s magic, it’s a superpower.

Aldous Huxley portrait here.

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kahlil gibran: the prophet

It was in a small indie bookstore in South Pasadena – The Battery – that I came upon a little book by Kahlil Gibran that I had not read for couple of decades.

 The Battery bookshop, South Pasadena, California. October 2011.

It was The Prophet, Gibran’s tour-de-force of poetry. I was introduced to it in my teens by The Beloved, who pointed out to me the wisdom in its mystical, Biblically-cadenced passages.

I bought that little book  - hardcover, 4.5 by 5.5 inches, with dust jacket, pre-owned – for six dollars, and consider it money well spent. It’s just the right size to tuck in a back pocket or purse, and take out from time to time to immerse in the flow of language and philosophical ideas.

Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) was born in Lebanon and migrated with his family to the United States in 1895.

He was a painter, writer, and poet. His most popular work, The Prophet, has never been out of print. He is the third best-selling poet in history, behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.

From the chapter on Love:

Then said Almitra, Speak to us of Love.

And he raised his head and looked upon the people, and there fell a stillness upon them. And with a great voice he said:

When love beckons to you follow him,

Though his ways are hard and steep.

And when his wings enfold you yield to him,

Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.

And when he speaks to you believe in him,

Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

Image of Kahlil Gibran here.

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pop goes the world: the new american dream

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  13 October 2011, Thursday

The New American Dream

Los Angeles, California – It’s the tail-end of my three-week vacation here and after careful observation and listening to the kwento of family and friends, it’s obvious that America is no longer the land of milk and honey that generations of Filipinos, including mine, were brought up to believe in and admire.

It used to be, just a decade or so ago, that many Filipinos aspired to live in the US, some going so far as to stay illegally in the country. These were the “TNTs” of legend, the tago-ng-tago whose status was a stack of lit dynamite waiting to explode, hence their frantic race to legitimize their stay by marrying a citizen whether for love or convenience; having a baby in the country; or obtaining a working visa from an employer who might or might not be exploiting the TNT’s predicament by paying low wages, while a recruitment company, if it had served as the go-between, would have been taking a hefty percentage of the TNT’s pay for a contracted period (usually until the employer started the working visa process).

Getting settled in the US was hard at first, but once on track, the payoff was in US dollars. Wired home to the Philippines, the money sent children to school, built homes for aging parents, boosted the nation’s GNP.

Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles. October 2011.

Nurses and physicians had an easier time settling in. The worldwide demand for the patient and hardworking Philippine healthcare professionals led to the boom of nursing schools across the country, driven by the milk-and-honey stories of the double-story tract house with two cars in the garage, trips to Europe, and a limitless supply of Spam and Doritos in the pantry, in your choice of West Coast (no snow, lots of beaches, surfing) or East Coast (harsh winters but living in fairytale settings looking like Currier and Ives postcards).

All this was before 9/11 and the global recession. In its wake the US suffered an economic downturn and a severe psychic blow from which it has yet to recover. The narratives of Filipinos here are no longer optimistic; they revolve around tales of poor employment opportunities, reduced government benefits, the instability of holding jobs.

Ivy, 40, a nurse, says her hospital is no longer hiring and she cannot find work for her niece, a new nursing graduate. Some of her friends have had their work hours or work days (and consequently, their pay) reduced; others have been laid off, a situation she says was unthinkable just five or six years ago.

Joanne, 41, migrated here last May. Previously she worked for 16 years as a corporate executive assistant in Dubai. When the worldwide recession hit there, she was laid off; within two months, she got another job, despite the tight job market. She has been in the US for four months and has still not obtained a position despite scouring the job websites daily. “This is the longest I’ve ever been unemployed,” she says. “It was never this difficult for me in Manila or Dubai.”

Wella, 43, a University of the Philippines graduate, worked a succession of clerical jobs when she arrived in this country in her early 20s, around twenty years ago. In Manila, she was working as a television news reporter; it was an underutilization of her skills and intellect to work as a receptionist, filing folders and answering phones. She’s doing better now, but it took a while, and there is no job security. “We could get laid off any moment,” she says. “I don’t stop looking for other jobs.”

Naldy, 44, a part-time college instructor, struggled to get his load of classes this semester. He has been waiting for years for a full-time position; none are in the offing at the moment because of state budget cuts on education.

Newspapers at a Starbucks in Union City, California. October 2011.

Willie, 54, is a property owner in the Philippines, but in LA is a retail associate at Best Buy. On his tag is his name and a greeting in Tagalog. He usually works the Filipino customers, selling TVs and other appliances. He’s on his feet the whole day; the only rest he gets is at home, after eight solid hours on the floor. He’s glad he wasn’t included in their company’s last wave of lay-offs.

Joe, 61, was a vice-president in a media marketing company in Manila in the ‘80s. In the Bay Area, he drives a FedEx truck and is grateful to have been bumped up to a hub-to-hub route after years of doing door-to-door. “That was hard on my back and knees,” he said. He’s worried about the future – his pension might not be as much as it should have been before the economic crisis. He has dipped into his 401-K fund to make ends meet, and is hoping to still be able to work after retirement.

Yet they prefer to remain in the US rather than return to the Philippines. “The quality of life here is still better,” they say. “We’ll cope.” Work, when you have it, is properly compensated, for the most part – “You help yourself,” says Naldy. Joe says he has become closer to his family. “You have no one else to rely on except each other.” Wella agrees, because “there isn’t the same support network of friends that you have in the Philippines.”

It’s the reality of the times – no country, no individual, is immune to the tides of global change. What we thought would never happen, in our lifetimes at least, and to the world’s greatest superpower, has transformed their society and the lives of their residents. While some economists point to an eventual recovery of the American economy over the medium- to long-term, things will likely never be the way they used to, when Filipinos trekked to America to own a piece of the American Dream.

No longer do we hear of TNTs in America; the job market is better in the Middle East, Europe, and Japan. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have rules more favorable to immigrants and are now the destinations of choice.

California freeway. October 2011.

There are still those of us psychically pulled to the US, however, by ties of family and friendship. If our beloveds are in America, then little pieces of ourselves are there too with them.

As Filipinos, this is our new American Dream – to visit our loved ones in the US, to stay in touch, to discover for ourselves how well they are coping; and for us to remain whole by occasionally reconnecting with that bit of ourselves that they will carry with them as long as we live.   ***

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pop goes the world: art and soul

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  4 August 2011, Thursday

Art and Soul

Since when has an artwork created so much scandal and controversy as Mideo Cruz’s Politeismo, now on exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines?

The artist and his work. Image here.

It is a mish-mash of religious and worldly iconography that has divided viewers. The art world in general applauds the expression of the artist’s personal vision, while some Roman Catholics are indignant, with some lay Catholic groups even considering filing charges against the artist and the CCP to “stop (sic) the exhibit in 48 hours or face the legal consequences.”

In the case of Politeismo, religion + art does not necessarily equal religious art, the kind of art that fills our museums and private collections – exquisitely-carved wooden mild-faced saints in robes with eyes lifted to heaven or carried on a plate; paintings of miraculous scenes, Christ on his cross, or Mary stepping on a serpent, its fangs embedded in her white foot, her head wreathed in stars or roses.

Mideo’s art brings these deities and saints to the level of humans. And why not, one might say? That is the risk run when the object of worship is depicted as human. In this instance, the sacred + religious = sacrilegious, as its detractors claim.

Viewers observe the work at CCP. From the artist’s public Facebook page.

The outrage stems from prevailing cultural attitudes which insists on respect towards religion, especially the dominant Roman Catholic Church. In his paper “Filipino Values: Determinants of Philippine Future” (1990), Dr. Serafin Talisayon identified religiosity as one of Philippine society’s core values – “maka-Diyos, spirituality, religiosity, belief in miracles, devotional”. He also cites a Tsukuba University study (1980) that places the Philippines on the top of a list of countries and their spiritual/religious beliefs, followed by India, Brazil, and the United States.

Tagged with the label “Asia’s Only Catholic Country”, many Catholic Filipinos feel they have to live up to that.

On the other hand, US-based Filipino art collector Victor Velasco points out works of art such as Politeismo are created to a great extent in other countries. He mentions the issues “…Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, American Family Association, National Endowment for the Arts, Senators Helms and D’Amato; also Corcoran Gallery of Art, Robert Mapplethorpe; also Dread Scott Tyler and “What is the Proper Way to Display An American Flag?”

Of Mideo’s work, Velasco says, “I think the show is beyond Catholic images or iconography. It instead deals with every type of of ‘idolatry’. Hence, [the incorporation of elements such as] Mickey Mouse, Fernando Poe, Jr, Imelda Marcos, Obama. Is PNoy anywhere in the wall — he, who was voted into office mostly for being a symbol? It focuses on how symbols and images are potent (i.e. powerful therefore dangerous) devices in creating, conjuring, and perpetuating beliefs and worships.”

Part of the sprawling installation. From the artist’s public Facebook page.

Velasco put me in touch with the controversial artist himself. Here’s our question-and-answer exchange on the issue:

Q: “What is your reaction to the negative comments to your art – “blasphemy”, “sacrilege”, and so on?”

Mideo Cruz: “I’m still astonished about the entire incident because the particular artwork inside a gallery became an effective, provocative tool, [whereas] every artist [knows the reality] that very few people come to an enclosed gallery space.

“It is an existing work [of which] various versions were already exhibited, first at the UP Vargas Museum in 2002, at Kulay Diwa Art Galleries in 2005 wherein the exhibit was also featured in a Spanish TV, and in 2007 at the Nexus group exhibition in Loyola Heights, Quezon City. It is a part of a music video done in the same year, which is being aired until now. Similarly inspired projects were done in Zurich, Switzerland; Taipei, Taiwan; Sardinia, Italy; Hong Kong; China and; Vancouver, Canada.

“As a visual artist, the images I create contain more explanation than my words. Images are open to various interpretations on the basis of the viewer’s perspective, maturity, and imagination.

“I cannot please everybody. I cannot tell them exactly how they will look and translate my work but may I say, please don’t stop on the surface; if you will close your eyes upon seeing the images, there are more things to see.

“Sometimes we need to realize that what we are looking at is the mirror of our society and of ourselves. The uproar might be the unconscious denial of seeing ourselves truthfully in the mirror. The realities in our society are the real blasphemy of our own image, the blasphemy of our sacred self.”

Q:  “When you conceived this work, did you think the majority of Filipinos were ready for this kind of thing? Or did you go ahead knowing that there would be many negative comments?”

Mideo: “Michael Steiner, the Swiss movie director, used to tell me “Your works are not really for a Filipino audience, they may not be ready to see those images.” But when we will be ready? Some philosophers say that we are now leaving the era of post-modernism; the world now is talking about same-sex marriage and here in the Philippines we are still talking if it is morally right to use a condom. We are now the only nation that doesn’t have a divorce law.

“Next year the physicists in Geneva are expecting some new discoveries from the 70 million “god particles” from the Large Hadron Collider. Who would dare to do something outside convention if we will be afraid to go out of the box? We wouldn’t know that the sun is the center of the solar system if Copernicus was afraid to be tagged a heretic. People should not be afraid to introduce things outside the norm; the dialectics must continue and we should not be afraid of change.”

Taking pictures of the controversial work. From the artist’s public Facebook page.

Q:  “What is the majority of comments that you have received overall – more negative or positive?”

Mideo: “At first a lot of the comments were threats and personal attacks, which only strengthened the points of my work, but lately, some arguments are [shaping up], and personal attacks are dwindling down with more substantial arguments. I see everything as positive and the comments on blogs, social networking sites, and other media as an extension of the work in CCP in a newer context. This might be similar to how an artwork behaves and changes when transform to a document such as photograph and video. It is another kind of experience in perceiving the work. A lot of artists and people from the creative industry from here and foreign countries are now showing their support.”

Q:  “With this controversy, what would you say are the prevailing or dominant attitudes in the country when it comes to works that touch on religious matters?”

Mideo: “That’s where I started trying to understand the making of the sacred and how the people contribute to that. Then I reconstruct it with parallel meanings relevant to our life as people. It really depends on the audience how they perceive the images, there are various reactions of course.

“Most of the people who reacted violently haven’t seen the actual work nor try to read the signifiers more. Or some saw it first on TV where it already directed them to where they will focus their mind upon seeing the images. They are in another context and not in the context of an art space wherein the experience they will gain is open for critical discourse.

“One integral part is we are so afraid to use the phallic, whereas it is part of our ancient culture. Even in our own language it is a taboo to mention it.”

Q:  “Would you do this again – continue creating these kinds of works?”

Mideo: “The worst thing for an individual is to be affected by intimidation and stop doing the things he believes in.”

Politeismo is a mixed-tape of pop culture, politics, and Papa God. Image from the artist’s public Facebook page.

Q: “Do you have plans to show these works abroad? Or, what would be the fate of these artworks – are they for sale? If yes, do you already have a buyer or buyers? Do you think there are Filipino art collectors who would buy these kinds of works?”

Mideo: “No plans yet to show it again inside or outside the country. I have been collecting these“relics” since I was in secondary school, so most of these things will remain in my vault. A couple of years ago there were some local art collectors who showed interest in one of the work exhibited – the cross titled “Relic” – but [negotiations] didn’t prosper and I wasn’t that interested to give it up that time. I already sold some fragments of the installation I did in Zurich in 2008.”

I believe in freedom of expression. Stifling a country’s artists stifles its soul. Art is a reflection of the zeitgeist, and Filipinos in general are questioning the continued and pervasive influence of the Church in our society and culture. Witness the spirited debates on the reproductive health and divorce bills; on the vehicles given by a government agency to seven bishops.

Not only are the clergy and their assumption of moral ascendancy being questioned, but also those who seek to impose their Catholic beliefs on others, such as the Alabang Village homeowners’ association officers who sought to bar the sale of condoms in their area, a move met with opposition and derision from fellow residents.

Mideo and other artists who do similar work are exploring the way religious beliefs have become embedded in our culture. Where is sacrilege there? The Church feels threatened; how different is this from Jose Rizal’s time, as he portrayed in his novels? I saw photos of the artwork under fire, and I consider it pretty tame compared to what’s out there in the world.

I’d say we’re just catching up. Welcome to the rest of the world, Philippines. *** 

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pop goes the world: the culture of negativity

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  28 July 2011, Thursday

The Culture of Negativity

This being a column that looks at the world from a cultural perspective (in the social anthropological sense), I am attracted to descriptive terms using the formula “culture + (trait) = label for social phenomenon.”

Last week I wrote about the culture of impunity. This time we look at negativism, and how endemic it is in our culture.

Doomsayers abound – the media are full of them, as are street corners. This is not to say that their points are not valid; more often than not, they are. And it is often strong negative emotions that elicit the strongest reactions, and make people discuss them with force and spirit.

Perhaps it is our superstitious side that does not wish to dwell on good news, because to be humble about such things is considered better than talking about them lest disaster and ill luck follow. The strong collective nature of Filipino society also regards talking about one’s achievements as bragging. People who do so are considered show-offs – mayabang - and through various forms of social sanction are taken down a peg –  being shamed or criticized in public is one such way.

About the only achievements that may be celebrated publicly are in sports (Manny Pacquio and the Azkals’ victories), academics (the annual crop of the universities’ summa cum laudes), and showbiz (Charice and other Filipino performers doing well abroad).

However, what is sad and counter-productive is when good news, especially in government, is disbelieved or taken for granted. Achievements are shrugged off and gains set aside as only to be expected. “Dapat lang,” is often the response, with a disdainful sniff.

President Aquino mentioned this in his State-of-the-Nation address the other day, when he said, in Filipino, “Let us end the culture of negativity; let us lift up our fellow Filipinos at every opportunity. Why do others delight in looking for whatever is ugly in our country? And is it so difficult – almost a sin – to say something good?”

After his speech, brickbats were hurled at him left and right, with the exception of some columnists. He left many issues unaddressed, they said. Yet has he done nothing right?

This is not to say everything has gone as it should. There is still much work to be done. The reality of poverty, the inequality of wealth distribution, the lack of local jobs that has led to the Filipino diaspora, is something that we have to confront.

Says an American friend, who has made many Pinoy friends online and because of its people has come to love the Philippines: “I know how sad the state of the Philippines is. It saddens me so much. I see the poverty and how cheap human life is. I see a culture of privilege and caste. I see a bankrupt philosophy buried in a religious dark age. It’s as sad as anything you might find anywhere.

“What is even sadder is how the people could have had such a different path.”

We could have been on a different path a long time ago, if we had chosen to take one before, if we had not deviated from the progressive path we were on in the ‘60s;

If Marcos and martial law did not take us down a dark and bloody road that set our nation back decades, and from which we are still trying to recover. While he and his First Lady built much massive (and blocky and boring) infrastructure, that is just window-dressing compared to the ills of the culture of impunity they embedded and that we are still suffering from, and the lives lost during the First Quarter Storm and well into that regime that we are still mourning;

If Gloria Arroyo and her ilk did not set out upon a path of greed and drain our nation’s coffers almost dry.

Now, after decades of abuse at the hands of such leaders and their cronies, how can we expect President Noy, now taking our country upon the daang matuwid, to fix all these societal problems in a matter of 365 days?

Some analysts say the gains he cited in the SONA as current were taken out of context. Are there then no achievements that may be attributed to this administration? To say that is to negate all the hard work put in the past year by the current crop of government leaders and workers, which is not fair to them.

In short, di na tayo na kuntento. Shouldn’t we be grateful for something at least, rather than the nothing that we might have had if things hadn’t gone as well as they have, considering?

In the end, it’s a question of what we truly want and how badly we want it, and if we are willing to work together – rather than against each other – to achieve it.

But then again, do we know what we really want? And what is it that we should want?

Here’s a story about that, from Hong Kong writer Nury Vittachi’s mystery novel The Feng Shui Detective (2000):

 Blade of Grass, the things you want are the things you do not want. Hear the ancient story of the man who knew what he wanted.

He was walking by the riverside when he saw an Immortal. The man was very curious. He looked at the person from Heaven.

“I suppose you want something from me?” said the Immortal.

“Yes,” said the man.

The Immortal touched a stone with his finger. It changed to gold. He said: “You can take.”

The man did not go. He stayed.

“Do you want something more?” said the Immortal.

“Yes,” said the man.

The Immortal touched three rocks nearby. They turned to gold. He said: “You can take.”

But the man still did not go.

The Immortal said: “What do you want? What is more valuable than gold?”

The man said: “I want something very ordinary.”

The Immortal said: “What do you want?”

The man said: “Your finger.”  ***

Azkals image here. President Noy here. Marcoses here. Book cover here.

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pop goes the world: rizal – hero or zero?

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 23 June 2011, Thursday

Rizal: Hero or Zero?

Rizal – hero or zero?

The hotly-debated question as to whether or not Jose Rizal is worthy of the title “hero” raged anew with the celebration of the sesquicentennial of his birth last Sunday, June 19.

Born in 1861 to an affluent land-owning family in Calamba, Laguna, Rizal grew up in comparative comfort, obtained a good education at the Ateneo, Letran, and University of Santo Tomas, and developed his skills in science and the arts.

But he was not ignorant of hardship. His mother was imprisoned twice for various trumped-up offenses, the prailes in their area having cast avaricious eyes on their property. His brother Paciano was linked to native priests later charged with subversion; for this reason Jose had to use their other family name of “Rizal” rather than the one everyone else used, “Mercado”.

After his studies in the Philippines, he went abroad and obtained a medical degree and took further studies at the universities of Madrid, Paris, and Heidelberg. He came back to the Philippines, made his living as an ophthalmologist (some sources say he was the only one in South-East Asia at the time), wrote inflammatory works, and ran afoul of the Spanish colonial government.

All this background is well-known to most Filipinos – after all, being the designated “national hero”, the particulars of his life have been dinned to us from elementary school onwards. His fables of the lost slipper, tortoise and monkey, and the moths and the lamp serve as object lessons for young people, as well as cultivate the example of an observant, obedient, and prudent boy.

Hearing these stories as a child, I was first impressed, then later sickened by what I thought was abject prudery on the part of a young child. What a goody-goody, I thought. Then, in high school, we were forced to read his novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, which I found dreary and annoying because there wasn’t a happy ending to the Ibarra-and -Maria Clara love story.

It wasn’t until I learned more about this remarkable man when I was older that I realized just how much of the narrative about Jose Rizal that is imparted to young people is actually constructed and carefully selected to position him as a role model. He had fun, sowed his wild oats, and generally behaved as an ordinary red-blooded male, with the difference that he had greater things on his mind.

Some have criticized the choice of Rizal to bear the mantle of “national hero”. It was all hype created by the Americans, they say, therefore a decision tinged with a colonial agenda. Elevating to hero status a short, soft-spoken writer over the warriors Bonifacio, Aguinaldo, and others of their ilk was their way of keeping the brown Filipino monkeys in subliminal subjugation.

Critics add that Rizal wrote in Spanish, the language of the colonial oppressor.

Yet the upshot of the decades of Rizal in the top hero’s seat has resulted in his image being iconic to all Filipinos. His statues dot the lawns of school campuses and national parks nationwide. The silhouette of his face, outfitted with aviator-style shades, emblazons t-shirts and tote bags that are so popular, merchandisers can’t keep them in stock. Whether or not he deserves to be national hero, or whether another personality deserves the honor more, is a moot point. For now, he fulfills that role, like it or not.

But it that so bad? Filipinos aged 40 and older, who had to take the mandatory 3 units of the Rizal course and 12 units of Spanish in college, gained a better appreciation of how Rizal’s mind worked. He was a peaceful revolutionary, who sparked a people’s fight for independence with thoughts and ideas rather than bullets and knives.

His weapon of choice was a fountain pen and a bottle of ink. From these flew concepts so potent that the Spanish colonial government was more frightened of him than of the gun-toting revolucionarios. It was Rizal whom they wished to neutralize. They tried threats, they tried exile, but in the end they knew the only way they could still his patriotic heart was to put a bullet through it.

At a certain point we can decide for ourselves whether or not Rizal was a hero. As a writer, I choose to admire him, accepting his human frailties that all of us possess in some form or another.

Jose Rizal was a poet, artist, scholar, physician, swordsman, journalist, traveler, reformist, son, brother, lover, friend.

He was a writer whose many essays and two novels – Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo – shook an oppressive foreign colonial regime, woke a people’s sense of nationalism, and led to the establishment of a country. His beliefs never wavered and he remained steadfast, even as he was imprisoned and sentenced to death for those beliefs.

He was a fighter who took up a pen instead of gun or sword to win our country’s freedom with thoughts and ideas rather than force.

He was a martyr, shot by firing squad in a grassy field.

His 150th birthday was also Father’s Day, yet we cannot wish him that. He was not a father. He didn’t have time.

For all that he was, he is my hero.

* *  * * *

In other news, activist-poet Axel Pinpin recently told me about his upcoming writing project. Well known for his poetry in Filipino and “spoken word” performances reminiscent of Gil Scott Heron (find them on Youtube), Axel has ventured into the short story form and creative non-fiction to which he brings his own brand of wry humor, a search light that he manages to shine into the darkest corners of life experiences.

It’s a rare talent that deserves a wider audience, and he’s asked me to lend a hand with translation of his short stories. It’s a great honor to be asked to work with an artist of his skill; he could have had his pick from his wide circle of literary friends. I look forward to the chance to work with him.

Artistic collaborations are unpredictable; like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you’ll never know what you’re going to get, and that’s exciting. *** (Email: jennyo@live.com, Blog: http://jennyo.net, Facebook: Gogirl Cafe, Twitter: @jennyortuoste)

Rizal self-sketch here. Rizal in Luna’s Paris studio here. Axel Pinpin portrait here.

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jose rizal at 150

Today, 19 June 2011, is the 150th birth anniversary of Dr Jose Rizal (1861-1896), national hero of the Philippines.

He was a poet, artist, scholar, physician, swordsman, journalist, traveler, reformist, son, brother, lover, friend.

He was a writer whose many essays and two novels – Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo – shook an oppressive foreign colonial regime, woke a people’s sense of nationalism, and led to the establishment of a country. His beliefs never wavered and he remained steadfast, even as he was imprisoned and sentenced to death for those beliefs.

He was a fighter, who took up a pen instead of gun or sword to win our country’s freedom with thoughts and ideas rather than force.

He wa a martyr, shot by firing squad in a grassy field, twisting his body forward to face his executioners at the sound of the fusillade and falling with his face to the blue Philippine sky.

Today is also Father’s Day, yet we cannot wish him that. He was not a father. He didn’t have time.

Always remember, never forget, his love and sacrifice.

Maligayang ika-150 kaarawan, Gat. Jose Rizal.

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