At the wake of Mideo Cruz’s controversial “Poleteismo” are conversations about censorship, engagement, and even the connections of the work to something like the Reproductive Health bill. Yet this piece raises a very valid argument:
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.
– CJ de Silva, Think Before You Get Offended
Her point is very important, in my view. Think about it: our museums are in the cities, out of the way of those in the provinces, and charge fees that are beyond the reach of the poor. Art is not given enough priority in Philippine public education, and in sectarian schools religion takes precedence over art and music. Art is a minor subject among minor subjects. The museum trip is treated as a way to leave school premises to get kids to look at woodcarvings and canvasses more than a practical application of what was learned and taught in the classroom.
Here, those who enter museums, collect art, and appreciate various pieces are those who can afford it, and/or those who are educated in it. The costs go beyond entrance fees and currency like transport costs and what to have for lunch. These include opportunity costs, social costs, long-term investments in education that translate into trips to the museum or the gallery. We cannot eat art. Art is something luxurious, an indulgence of the rich and the educated.
The Church, on the other hand, is free to enter, free to join, and close to the poor. People settle around the Church, because it is an important part of their lives. To go to Church is to feed the soul, to get a step closer to the Kingdom of Heaven, to create the moral foundations of life. Art is not an out-there interpretation of some part of life or some philosophical school, but integral to worship and praise. People would understand the teachings – and the demands – of the Church more than those in museums and galleries, for the simple fact that the Church is closer to them. And when the Church says that a crucifix with a phallus is sacrilege, they would believe in the same. Somehow that meaning resonates with them better than what was meant by the artist.
(Side note: we have entire institutions engaged in the business of censorship for decades now and here we are crying foul over a piece of artwork, but that’s another story.)
The fact that things like artistic merit should, in Dean Andy Bautista’s words, “be left to the sound and wise sophistications of our literati, culturati, and artistes” is to forsake our common stakes in promoting – much less creating – art. Most arguments against Mideo Cruz’s work, in fact, aren’t literary, cultural, and artistic as they should be. We lack a refined appreciation for art, but we have a very refined relationship with religion. Many of the negative reactions to the work of Mideo Cruz weren’t born out of artistic viewpoints, but institutional ones born out of the canons of fundamentalist readings of Catholicism.
At the end of the day the circles by which Cruz’s work are praised or chastised are not those that the rest of the people walk in. Things like food, wages, and shelter are still not yet addressed, or met enough for them to be concerned with the pursuit of art. The best, most critical appreciation, creation, and evaluation of art is done by those who are nourished. Not only physically, but intellectually and creatively. The reaction to “Poleteismo” should be that point where we should re-evaluate, re-position, and reinforce the position of art in society.
It all starts with providing more time and resources to art in the educational system. There must be a way to configure the current curriculum to accommodate more art education and art studies, at the very least at the secondary level. And all of this cannot be divorced from the state and the other sectors of society to meet the essential ends of human survival: food, shelter, clothing, and education, so as to bring people closer to realizing artistic and creative potentials. With that nourished body and mind, the conversations about art become artistic. There must be ways of bringing art closer to the people. Like indigenous art, conceptual art, traditional art, even street graffiti. There are ways to bring out art outside our galleries and into daily human experience.
Mao Zedong writes that there is a need for the unity between the political criterion and the artistic criterion. True, but as long as our society has a chronic problem meeting basic needs, we cannot be prepared enough to meet peripheral needs. As long as we have a problem meeting the ends that are political, we will have very serious problems meeting the ends that are artistic. The state of art cannot be divorced from the state of society. If our people are hungry, our art is hungry. If our people are sick, our art is sick. If our people are not educated, our art is not educated. To solve the problems of art, we need to solve the problems of society first, and perhaps use art as a way to liberate and emancipate the people. The way Mideo Cruz’s piece was chastised and censored is proof that we need more nourishing.
Beyond the notion of the starving artist, malnourished art comes from a malnourished society. We cannot feed the painting, but indeed we can feed the painter. More than that, we can feed those who see the painting, and have a common stake in it.