Shock/Art


The assemblage of a crucifix, rosaries, and other religious items – punctuated by the presence of a movable, erect, wooden penis – caused a storm of discussions a few days ago at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

It’s a good thing that art is taking center stage this time.  At a time where heated and polarizing opinions (and Tweets and Facebook pages) would revolve around a guy who drives his car into a flooded street and makes it to national TV, the discussion around Mideo Cruz’s Poleteismo is refreshing.

Merde d’Artista by Piero Manzoni (pictured above) is a collection of 90 cans autographed by the artist himself.  The cans contain (purportedly) Manzoni’s own feces, sealed and sold to art patrons.  If I were to do the same thing, I would have simply been dismissed as a loon, or those cans would have been thrown back at me.  Which is quite true for other situations of “shock art.”  I couldn’t soak a crucifix in a container full of urine, photograph it, and call it art.  I would probably be derided by everyone in the country if I made a collage of what I purport to be the Virgin Mary using pornographic images and elephant feces.  I could not get away with an installation made with a bed, used condoms, and panties stained with menstrual blood.

(Photograph: “My Bed,” by Tracey Emin)

In many ways, art is institutional.  It is guild-like; that’s why we have “artists’ circles” and “writers’ circles.”  In the wake of Caparas’ National Artist award, we cannot deny that part of the protests of Caparas’ works come from some preconceived notion of what art is, what should be artistic, and what body of work qualifies for the “National Artist” distinction.  Beyond beauty, aesthetics, and theory, part of what makes art “up there” are the notions and the conventional wisdom of those within these groups, inside looking out.

While I would have a notion of what makes a good painting or song or sculpture or poem, being an “outsider” would somehow make my thoughts but hushed whispers from the back of the room, compared to an established artist’s lectures from the lectern.  This is not to cry “circle-jerk” or “artistic incest” or whatever; but like the realities it represents, there are hierarchies and stratifications in art and its interpretation.

Yet the same institutional character is true for religion.  The vitriol and anger over Cruz’s piece by laity and priests and members of the clergy does not – in all likelihood – represent the views of the so-called “Catholic majority.”  In all certainty, there must be at least one devout Catholic who would praise Cruz’s sculpture as a gripping commentary on idolatry in the modern age, just as Sister Wendy Beckett did in behalf of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ.  If the problem with the art world stands in how closed it can be to the presence of an artist, the problem with the fundamentalist religious universe is how close-minded it can be.  Like bigoted comments on how this would have happened when the religious iconography was Muslim, for example.

In other countries, the case against “bad art,” “offensive art,” or “not art” has been met with strains of unrest which we’re now quite familiar with.  Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, for example, was the subject of a high-profile threat from former New York City Rudy Giuliani in 1999.

That’s where we are: more than a battle of something “out there,” it’s a battle of tangible things like Churches and artists.  Even if we remove the piece from exhibition right now there is a tension between art and religion as much as there is cooperation within it.  The faithful of the Catholic Church have made beautiful pieces of art in the name of the Lord.  The art form, to Catholics, is a form of intercession.  Yet to an artist, the form may just be a component or template to create new art.  In this tension, conflicts will arise.  It is more than just taste, or taste classifying the classifier.  It is a conflict of institutions which we are not completely departed from.  We are part of art, as we are part of a faith, or a movement about or against it.

Yet in the context of our modern world, where discussions and debate and sobriety and magnanimity are expectations from everyone, disagreeable acts like vandalism and intimidation in discussion are unnecessary.  There are ways to disagree with the depiction in Poleteismo without being disagreeable or unnecessarily political and fundamentalist.

I think that aside from the un-Christian insults from the Catholic fundamentalists and the snobbery from artist circles, the controversy surrounding Mideo Cruz’s work is good for the arts, as far as the general public is concerned.  Because of it, and the coverage from all forms of media, the people get to form opinions about things that they are part of, but somehow distanced from, like art and religion.  A sober, diplomatic view beyond vandalism and online vitriol is a better way to look at Mideo Cruz’s piece.

Now whether the forum by the CCP was about art or politics is another story altogether.  At the very least, it was a venue to talk about art.  Which is still a good thing.

So where do I stand with Poleteismo?  The trope and theme of the profaned, grotesque-ed body of Jesus has been around for a very long time.  It has been portrayed by everything from sculpture to painting to pornography and high art.  Many of our reactions now may just be knee-jerk opinions based on something that we don’t see all too often in this country (what with museums and exhibits being quite prohibitively expensive for the populace in terms of economic and social cost, but that’s another story).  I think it’s best to see if the piece would stand the test of time and memory, to see if the shock goes beyond being skin-deep.

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