An Opinion on “Politeismo”

A heated controversy over a postmodern art installation entitled “Politeismo” (polytheism) recently rocked not just the Philippine art community, but also many embattled sectors of a predominantly Catholic nation churned up by issue after issue challenging their faith.

On- and offline, ad hominem attacks have been launched against artist Mideo M. Cruz and his piece that — to put it mildly — juxtaposed revered religious images with phallic symbols and condoms while on display in the foremost art venue in the capital, the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). The furor consisted of expressions of insulted sensibilities and included threats against the life of the artist, who, sadly, isn’t eloquent enough to defend his work. The outrage spurred the President of the Republic himself to order the closing of the entire exhibit, not just the subjected installation.

As if to balance the opinions of Church supporters, mainstream media came out with obviously partial news reports (such as this one by reporter Sam Marcelo) that side with the contemporary artistic community, clamoring against what they call “censorship” of “freedom of expression.” The country’s most respected culturati also had to speak up. Literary figure Bienvenido Lumbera condemned the “attack against creativity,” and arts professor Cecilia de la Paz called the closure an effect of a lack of art education.

While more decried yet another victory of religion over secularism and arguments for artistic freedom, some saw the work as unworthy of support. Respected Filipino writer F. Sionil Jose called the artwork “immature and juvenile,” and celebrated multidisciplinary artist Abdulmari Imao, a Muslim, also frowned on the anti-Christian piece. Critic Lito Zulueta commented on how the work was a “liberal cliché” that is “not art” but “a mess.”

Even with contrasting opinions, no one so far has stepped forward to dub the work ingenious. And it seems this sentiment is the one opinion both sides share. Sure, we have to give the artist credit for intending to spark off intellectual inquiries the way excellent, unifying art forms do. But what his work mainly aroused is the public’s instincts to use aggression and threats against life and property, similar to the effects of cheap, violent films and horrible rock lyrics.

Freedom against freedom, definition against definition

If we talk of the issue as a matter of religious freedom versus freedom of expression, it is necessary to ask which is weightier, and it’s even more complicated to defend the artist’s individual liberty when they say it has already stepped on others’. In the end, these liberties may just equal out. We can also talk of any personal work of “expression” versus the morale of the majority, but this, too, is faulty. There’s logic in knowing that the majority, though powerful and legitimate, may not always be right, in the very sense of the word.

Redefinitions of what is “art” will also take bloody and lengthy exchanges, and, given today’s relativist mood, such debate can just settle with a “That is your opinion” ending. But this non-agreement obviously doesn’t solve anything.

Artistic excellence for solidarity

While everyone certainly has a moral or political stance on the issue, one possible way to merge these points of contention is through a shared commitment to uphold aesthetic standards and reward products of culture for their excellence.

A mouthful? Let me explain.

All of us surely intend to look at artistic presentations as expressions of our common interests and values, or common consciousness. Given our varied differences, it seems the only point of agreement left is our desire for growth as a people living in the same culture and under one nation. This desire is something to which any well-meaning, thinking Filipino can respond. We should then measure the value of any product — any work of “art” — based on its contribution to this tie that binds us.

We can achieve greater unity by rewarding and supporting  goods that strengthen our common interests as Filipinos while maintaining a healthy plurality. In this way, an art installation, such as Cruz’s, that challenges moral attitudes and divides a nation must not be given space in the public forum, especially in a prestigious, publicly funded gallery like the CCP.

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