Iconoclasm in art / failure of nerve

By Elmer Ordonez

Senator Edgardo Angara may well have put the “Kulo” controversy to rest by not recommending sanctions against the CCP board. All possible sides were heard at last Tuesday’s Senate probe presided over by the former UP president. Enlightened and benighted views and questions were entertained. Angara seemed satisfied that the CCP board promised to review their procedures for exhibits.

All’s well that ends well? Here’s my take on the issue:

Weeks of pressure from the Church clergy/ partisans including Palace intervention compelled the CCP board to pull out the entire “Kulo” exhibit, not just the controversial installation “Polytheism” of Mideo Cruz.

CCP chair Emily Abrera said the board did not “cave in” to the pressure but a decision was reached, by referendum, to withdraw the exhibit before its expiry today. Against the closure were Abrera, Florangel Braid, and Carol Espiritu while a majority of six including CCP president Raul Sunico were for closure for reasons of “public safety.”

The exhibit had already been shown at Ateneo and UP Diliman and no problem arose from viewers. The exhibit was to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Rizal by alumni artists of Rizal’s alma mater, the University of Santo Tomas, celebrating its 400th year of its founding. Historically, the UST’s school of fine arts under the late National Artist Victorio Edades was a pioneer in modernist art while the University of the Philippines was still following the classical style with Fernando Amorsolo and Guillermo Tolentino as leading lights. Edades’ 1928 exhibit triggered a running debate between the moderns and the conservatives.

At the about the same time Jose Garcia Villa was suspended from the UP for his “obscene” poem “Man-Songs” by a committee led by traditional poet Dean Jorge Bocobo who must have thought Villa’s modernist work was “bad writing.”

The advent of modern art or “the shock of the new” came rather late in the Philippines. Mideo Cruz’s installation would have been in its element during the time of “Dadaism” in Europe. Edades’ works were modern in style but were they infused with “ideology and politics” like Picasso’s anti-fascist “Guernica?” Edades’ “The Builders” had a proletarian touch; his students were more into depicting Filipino history and identity like the murals of Carlos “Botong” Francisco.

“Dadaism” itself (with Marcel Duchamp as a favorite example with his “Fountain,” a urinal hanging from his installation) was a protest against the senselessness of the First World War and against bourgeois art. He did not expect the public would tolerate his “shock art.” Just as the academe in Loyola and Diliman did not create a big fuss over Cruz’s work. Thanks to a TV camera man who showed shots to the bishops when the trouble began.

“Kulo” or revolutionary ferment was obviously inspired by Rizal’s iconoclasm in the last decades of the 19th century when Rizal and the Propagandists produced incendiary literature that would lead to the 1896-1898 Revolution that ended Spanish colonial/monastic rule. Rizal and Marcelo del Pilar were particularly scathing in their anti-friar writings. The two novels of Rizal to this day are taught in some schools expurgating or sanitizing passages considered offensive to the Church.

Constantino Tejero of Inquirer thinks Cruz’s “Polytheism” is expressive of “racial memory embedded in the subconscious”— a virtual history of church and colonial abuses up to the present. Lito Zulueta also of Inquirer consigns Cruz’s work to iconoclastic art. Iconoclasm has a long history of idol-smashing (literally and figuratively) in religion, politics, culture and art. The Church itself destroyed images and icons carried by its forces deemed responsible for their defeat in battle.

In Rizal’s time the theocratic state responded to his “blasphemous” and “heretical” novels by banning them and ultimately having him shot by firing squad. Today, if some defenders of the faith have their way, they would perhaps have the offending artist burned at stake like Joan of Arc, and those responsible in the CCP for approving the exhibit, charged in court and made to resign.

Those who find Cruz’s work offensive have the right to protest or to picket the exhibit but do they have the right to resort to vandalism or arson? The latter act conjures images of book-burning, and history is replete with examples of this kind of censorship in totalitarian and supposedly democratic societies. The Church provides the faithful with an index of approved books bearing the phrase “nihil obstat” or nothing objectionable. “Prior restraint” cannot be imposed in a pluralistic society.

The UP Arts studies department statement provides the aesthetic and intellectual justification for engaging controversial art works in discussion rather than banning them. It says: “While there are contending interpretations of an image presented by art, the ethical course of action is to process the contentions and that is what art ensures: a process of communicative action. The closure of an exhibition only achieves the closure of democratic, informed and thoughtful engagement.”

The CCP board may still redeem itself by standing their ground against the recrudescence of obscurantism and repression. They will not be alone.