state sponsored art

Nasa ilalim ang “kulo”: Some thoughts on the state, the artist and society

There are a number of things that strike me as fascinating about the Cultural Center of the Philippines exhibit “Kulo” which was shut down due to the adverse public reaction to the contribution of Mideo Cruz, a mixed media collage entitled “Poleteismo” which controversially featured a crucifix (see above). They are:

1) The role of the state in promoting art.

State sponsored art was Imelda’s thing. But even she has drawn the line here. In saying that the artists crossed a line, the detractors of the exhibit like Pres Aquino were implicitly saying the role of the artist should be circumscribed by existing cultural beliefs, norms and biases. We know this is not the case, but perhaps he could have nuanced his response a bit by saying that while artists are free to challenge social norms of behavior, it wasn’t the role of the state to necessarily support them in that regard.

2) The streak of copy cat-like qualities of this art work.

There are parallels with the crucifix in urine (Piss Christ) that sparked controversy in the US because it was backed by the National Endowment for the Arts. Artists are of course allowed to borrow ideas from each other.

Are they insane for doing it? Yes, I believe all artists have to be insane in some form or fashion. Otherwise why would they do what they do, but that is not the point. They could at least be a little original though, but in the world of art, plagiarism is hard to prove definitively.

3) The Rizal connection.

The exhibit was part of the wider celebration of national hero Jose Rizal’s 150th birth anniversary. In his day, Rizal’s “incendiary” novels tackled cultural taboos by depicting some clergymen in very unflattering, yes phallus-centric, ways (Freud would have said that all forms of organized religion are). Of course, Rizal didn’t have the state supporting his work (how could he?), but it is very fitting that these artists from UST his alma mater and the oldest Catholic educational institution in the country should follow in his footsteps. What are the UP Fine Arts students up to, I wonder.

4) Just like all those banned films and books, this exhibit’s success is fueled by the attempts of some to censor it.

The organizers of the exhibit have already succeeded immensely as a result of the publicity generated by the conservative elements in our society, in my view. Where we must draw the line is when public reaction turns to violence against artists, writers and thinkers. By inadvertently restoring the debate over the role of the state in promoting culture, the CCP has in fact made itself relevant.

5) The role of art in society.

We can argue over whether the state should financially support such controversial forms of expression. What can be agreed on, however, is it should at the very least protect artists from physical intimidation or abuse for their work (that includes vandalism).

Those who were offended by the art work and sought to control the artistic freedom of those who staged it perhaps need to be educated about what art is. The purpose of art sometimes is to challenge our views.

Both the state and the church have tried for centuries to co-opt art to serve their “noble” purposes, to spread their philosophical or ideological belief systems. Art of course cannot be circumscribed in this sense. Society and life are made richer because artists choose to tackle difficult and controversial topics, and to make us confront them head on. We don’t need to change or alter our views in the end, but the very act of being confronted allows us to examine our own views from a different perspective.

6) Empirically based policy view.

Perhaps we need to take a cue from Richard Florida, the author of The Rise of the Creative Class. He directly correlates the wealth of cities to how diverse they are, both in terms of demographics (he formulated the Gay Index of a city) and artistically (the Creative Index). The more tolerant a society is towards disparate views, the more prosperous it becomes.

Perhaps by restricting expression of and access to these works of art, our leaders may have maintained their standing within the community, but they might have in the process impoverished it in the long-run.