Think Before You Get Offended.
I was hearing a very angry Ted Failon on the cab’s stereo.
“Artist ka diba? I-drowing mo nga ang Diyos mo. Tapos lalagyan namin ito ng ari ng lalaki. Hindi ka ba mababastos?”
Obviously, Ted Failon was talking about the current national controversy - Filipino artist Mideo Cruz and his artworks Relic and Poon. Seeing the artworks (even just online) left me awestruck. Mideo Cruz is a brave guy, which is a very usual trait for artists. And if he wanted to get the people’s attention and shock them, he was successful.
Then I searched my (trivia teflon) memory of artists and artworks that I’ve seen that had similar themes - juxtaposing Catholic images with sexual symbols, or visual cues relating to commercialism and capitalism. This imagery isn’t new. In fact, you’d see this theme in art school thesis exhibits. Mideo Cruz’s artworks did not shock me. I was shocked by how most Filipinos were offended by them.
Then I realized that this whole controversy is not an issue of whether Cruz’s artworks are offensive or not, this is an issue of how most Filipinos look at art. The country doesn’t lack artists who impart challenging and progressive ideas, the country lacks a refined appreciation for art.
Back in 2007, I was doing my thesis in the UP College of Fine Arts about the MAKABAYAN - the revised elementary curriculum for our public schools. Basically, the curriculum collapsed Music, Art, Physical Education, Sibika at Kultura, Home Economics and Homeroom into just one subject. This just goes to show that the Philippine education does not prioritize art and culture as much as science, math and language. Most of us were taught that art and culture is a peripheral need. But it makes sense for our third world status - would you think about art if you can’t even have a decent meal for the day?
When I went to Barcelona, I realized that as an old civilization, Europe has an evolved value for art. It seems to them that beauty and aesthetics are basic needs. There was no ugly corner in Barcelona. The architecture and urban planning were refined, carefully planned and designed. Even their trash bins match the city’s design!
Now I realize that most of us were made to believe that art is a luxury. Only a few can afford it, yes. But does this mean that if you can’t afford art, you should not appreciate it? And this current issue with Mideo Cruz’s art and the CBCP labeling it as “blasphemous” is a reflection of our culture that has a dearth of sophisticated art appreciation. Is as if we are not a critical audience. We allow ourselves to be offended instantly, without trying to understand what is presented to us. We cast judgments without even asking why.
Art is often defined as the artist’s expression of an idea or an emotion. But personally, I’d like to think that more than an expression, Art is a form of communication. It is a dialogue between the artist and the audience. History would even support me - art movements transpire as a reaction to a precedent action. The Renaissance was a reaction to the Medieval period. Realism was a reaction to Neo-Classicism. I could go on, if you want. Art doesn’t end with the creation (the artwork) - the art should be seen. The audience have to be affected or at least react. That way, art comes full circle - it becomes an experience.
Indeed, a lot of people got affected by Cruz’s art, and they reacted instantly. I understand that looking at an art piece is subjective. My experience of a certain artwork (or a film, or a song) is an entirely different experience from you, or from our neighbor. Our reaction is an amalgam of previous experiences and values system that are uniquely ours. So if you appreciate something or take offense from it, it is because of who you are and what you believe in. I believe that taking offense is an emotional reaction - it’s instinctive and illogical. But Art is not a basic experience (like how our elementary education stressed through the years!), so maybe a reaction to it shouldn’t be basic too! A reaction to art should be critical and well thought of. I wonder now if the people who got offended by Cruz’s piece tried to understand it before they reacted? We often reject what we don’t understand.
On the other hand, I am curious if Cruz took in consideration who will look and experience his art. Or did he simply want to express himself? Did he think whether or not his audience was ready for what he was going to show? Or did he intend to be understood or to simply vomit out his ideas for the sake of putting it out there?
I don’t know.
I can’t answer for anyone but myself. For me, I see this controversy as a challenge to both the Filipino artist and the audience. For the audience, this is a challenge to be critical on looking at art and to give out an educated criticism of it. For the artists, I see this as a challenge to be more sensitive to their audience and to be insightful more than just simply being inspired. I see this whole thing as a disruption of the status quo that art is just an expression. I really find that very selfish. Maybe it’s about time we communicate.