writings, projects and exhibitions of Clarissa Chikiamco

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Senate BIll No. 2464: A crime against Philippine culture

This article was so long that it had to be printed in two parts. Many thanks to Igan D' Bayan for doing illustrations for the article!

Senate Bill No. 2464: ‘A crime against Philippine culture’

ARTICIPATION By Clarissa Chikiamco
The Philippine Star Monday, September 22, 2008

There has been some commotion amidst the local online art communities lately about Senate Bill No. 2464, the Anti-Obscenity and Pornography Act of 2008. Introduced by Senator Manny Villar, the bill is apparently pending for approval. Before any approving, the Senate should know that the bill’s approval means one of the worst crimes against Philippine culture. It is repressive to the arts with its aims to criminalize “obscene” and “pornographic” acts regardless of intention. No room for social commentary. No room for creative expression. Nothing.

The intentions of the bill are respectable: “It is the policy of the State to give special value to the dignity of every human person and to promote and safeguard its integrity and the moral, spiritual and social well-being of its citizenry, especially the youth in general and women in particular, from the pernicious effects of obscenity and pornography.” Sexual offenses to women and to children are indeed serious issues and the propagation of such material that could increase the risk of sexual crimes is something that must be considered. But the bill impinges on the creative right of artists to express themselves with its ridiculous definitions.

The Bill

Obscene is defined in the Act as “anything that is indecent or offensive or contrary to good customs or religious beliefs, principles or doctrines, or tends to corrupt or deprave the human mind, or is calculated to excite impure thoughts or arouse prurient interest, or violates the proprieties of language and human behavior, regardless of the motive of the producer, printer, publisher, writer, importer, seller, distributor or exhibitor.” Examples listed under this include, but apparently are not limited to: (1) showing, depicting or describing sexual acts (2) showing, depicting or describing human sexual organs or the female breasts; (3) showing, depicting or describing completely nude human bodies; (4) describing erotic reactions, feelings or experiences on sexual acts; or (5) performing live sexual acts of whatever form.

The definition of obscene allows for a completely subjective opinion and the problem is whose opinion is it that matters? Who gets to decide and judge what is indecent, offensive, contrary to good customs or religious beliefs, principles, or doctrines, or corrupting or depraving the human mind? Is it going to boil down to one person’s beliefs in court even if it differs from the beliefs of the “offender”? Or shall it be whatever the majority thinks? What majority, though? The bill lists a number of government agencies responsible for the bill’s implementation but are they in the position to act as expert and critic of good customs or what corrupts or depraves the human mind?

Pornographic or pornography is defined in the bill as “objects or subject of film, television shows, photography, illustrations, music, games, paintings, drawings, illustrations, advertisements, writings, literature or narratives, contained in any format, whether audio or visual, still or moving pictures, in all forms of film, print, electronic, outdoor or broadcast media, or whatever future technologies to be developed, which are calculated to excite, stimulate or arouse impure thoughts and prurient interest, regardless of the motive of the author thereof.”

The definition of pornography, as with the definition of obscene, paradoxically has both “calculated” and “regardless of the motive.” One can’t say that the author’s material was “calculated” to excite, stimulate or arouse such “impure” thoughts without referring to his or her motive or intent. Again, this is unfairly biased towards the party that gets aroused from such material, which basically becomes reduced to individual preferences.

Three of the six punishable acts under the law involve mass media. These are (1) producing, printing, showing, exhibiting, importing, selling, advertising or distributing obscene or pornographic materials in all forms of mass media; (2) causing the showing or exhibition, distributing or the printing, publication or advertising, or the selling of obscene of pornographic materials in all forms of mass media; and (3) performing, demonstrating, acting or exhibiting any obscene or pornographic act in any form of mass media. Mass media is defined in the act as “film, print, broadcast, electronic and outdoor media including, but not limited to, Internet, newspapers, tabloids, magazines, newsletters, books, comic books, billboards, calendars, posters, optical discs, magnetic media, future technologies, and the like.” Not only does this encompass a wide range but the “including, but not limited to” part seems to give a rather large allowance for maneuvering in finding material in whatever format punishable.

The other punishable acts include performing, or allowing the performance of, live sex or live sexual act in public, public places or any place open to public viewing; writing any obscene or pornographic article in any print or electronic medium; and showing, exhibiting, selling, or distributing obscene or pornographic movies in whatever format, whether produced in the Philippines or abroad, in any restaurant, club or other places open to the public, including private buildings, places or houses where the viewers are not limited to them owners thereof and the members of his family. The latter means one can still enjoy pornography but in the privacy of his or her own home (though it can’t be shared with friends or other outsiders, relatives are apparently okay).

To say that this bill has no objective to include or pursue such censorship in the arts is untrue. It includes paintings, drawings and illustrations, which are predominant formats in the visual arts, and includes outright the art form of literature in its definition of materials covered under the act. Other materials covered are films, television shows, photographs, music, games, advertisements, writings, or narratives.

Punishable Acts are Punishing Who?
So what does this mean for the Philippine art scene?

Under this act, many artworks in exhibitions, even conservative ones, could be deemed obscene or pornographic (National Artist Fernando Amorsolo’s paintings featuring nude maidens immediately come to mind), yet their inclusion in exhibitions may not necessarily be a punishable act. As long as the still images of “obscene” or “pornographic” artworks are not produced in mass media, there doesn’t seem to be anything that the artists or exhibiting institutions can be punished for.

It probably means though that museums, galleries and other art-affiliated institutions cannot use any such images for invitations or exhibition catalogues, which is preposterous because it is next to impossible to fulfill educational roles and further scholarship without documentation or printed material on the artworks. Even if the image is censored, the text could not even describe the image as all text is also apparently subjugated under the act and could merit punishment for even simply describing a nude body.

“Obscene” or “pornographic” artworks using film or video are going to precariously hang under the Act. Take Jevijoe Vitug’s video work “Classical Scandal” (2006), featuring clips of found homemade porn juxtaposed with Philippine classical paintings, a commentary on, as the artist provided in a statement, “the dividing line between pornography and fine art, between naked and nude… (questioning) the notion of originality and legality as well as mass production and public consumption.” The artist and those in the institution responsible for the exhibition of such a work could, under the bill, be slapped with heavy fines and even jail time. But why? Is the work really about and created for titillating the viewer? Or, like a lot of contemporary art, isn’t it an informed endeavor based on social and (art) historical observations which become an impetus to thinking of a confluence of ideas? Why should any artist, should he or she choose to use the human body (yes, even nude ones) to articulate an idea, be punished for doing so?

Whatever the kind of art (visual arts, literature, dance, theater, film, etc.), it is only natural that some works are going to use and refer to the body. Human beings are embodied beings and this includes having sexual organs and experiences of sexual acts. To pretend otherwise by censoring any text or image with allusions to this is a foolish pretension. The bill poses that Philippine society is too immature to receive even just an illustrated depiction of a woman’s breasts. While the bill’s immediate implications seem to be to the media and arts communities, the Anti-Obscenity and Pornography Act of 2008 is more an affront to Philippine society. It indicates that the nation is restrictive and closed-minded. The bill is less about human decency and more about catering to the elite group of the easily offended.

(To be concluded)
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The second part of the article next week includes the discussion “Is art above the law?” To read the full bill, download it from the Senate website at http://www.senate.gov.ph/lis/bill_res.aspx?congress=14&q=SBN-2464.

Senate Bill No. 2464: A crime against Philippine culture

ARTICIPATION By Clarissa Chikiamco
Monday, September 29, 2008 (Conclusion)

Last week, I wrote about the controversial Senate Bill No. 2464, the Anti-Obscenity and Pornography Act of 2008 introduced by Senator Manny Villar. The Senate should know that the bill’s approval means one of the worst crimes against Philippine culture. It is repressive to the arts with its aims to criminalize “obscene” and “pornographic” acts regardless of intention. No room for social commentary. No room for creative expression. Nothing.

With regard to objections to this bill on its repercussions to the art scene, two fundamental questions are raised: 1) Is art above the law? 2) Given that the law would allow some concessions for artists, couldn’t just anybody call himself or herself an “artist” to allow himself or herself to get away with truly punishable acts that masquerade as “art”?

On the first question, the answer is no. Art isn’t, or rather, shouldn’t be, above the law. But the law should recognize the intrinsic value of art and culture and therefore should be created with room for freedom of expression. Artists are always trying to move past boundaries but, as people who usually seem to be on the cusp of the exceptional and transitional points in history, this is not without value and not without reason. Except in the most extreme cases (exceedingly rare), artistic intent is valid grounds to create material with transgressive content. In Australia, pornography laws consider educational, literary and artistic merit as part of the circumstances in determining if material is indeed offensive.

There is no cause to fear that, without such a law, artists are going to run out of their homes in reckless abandon and perform wild sexual acts in the street in the name of art. Most of the time, any possibly offensive material is exhibited or performed within the realm of spaces, galleries or institutions, which are usually visited or witnessed by those who already recognize that there is something beyond such works’ face value. Also, artists and those working in the spaces with such material have little difficulty when it comes to finding a suitable arrangement in these matters. Museums abroad section off possibly offensive material with signage by the entryways alerting to the adult content of the work and that access is only for those 18 years of age and above. Such an approach could work in the Philippines provided that the material is truly of adult and potentially offensive content and not the absurd ideas the bill has of what is obscene or pornographic.

On the second question, a real criminal could try to call himself or herself an artist to, for example, get away with photos of child pornography which he or she would claim to be “art.” But that doesn’t mean that he or she is really an artist. An artist does not simply become an artist because he or she declares himself or herself to be one. The designation of “artist” is regulated by art institutions and art experts within and permeating those institutions. Becoming an artist does not take one act but unfolds over a series of acts that show the person’s intentionality to participate in such a discourse. It is doubtable that real criminals with malicious intent would go through the tedious process of putting together portfolios and exhibitions proposals; going around the different galleries, hoping to get picked up to produce a show; and, if accepted, preparing several weeks or even months for the exhibition; facilitating and even funding such things as invitation design, mail-outs, press releases, food and drinks; then after or even before the show ends, doing it all over again. This is not even to mention all the networking he or she would need to do along the way, like going to fellow artists’ exhibitions and talks, participating and even initiating group projects, dialoguing with curators, talking with potential collectors and applying for local and international residencies. Those who think being an artist is so easy (which is not to discourage anyone from undertaking creative endeavors) do real artists injustice. A look at the curriculum vitae of the supposed artist and consultations with museum and gallery directors and curators will belie any false claims.

Killing the Philippines’ Potential as a Cultural Power

The Philippines has the ability to position itself as a cultural tiger. The nation is not lacking in talented artists, rather the country’s cultural community is lacking in funding and support from the government and the wider public. Artists in other Asian countries are getting more exposure, not because they are more talented but because their governments and more of their local private institutions recognize the intrinsic value in their contributions and back this up with concrete resources and support. Yet, even without as much government support and private patronage, the Philippine art scene has an enormous asset in being one of the most liberal, poising itself as a nucleus for cultural activity. This advantage will, of course, be stripped away with the passage of the bill and culturally position the Philippines behind its Asian neighbors.

But what does a country that values its culture signal? A country that values its culture — and manifests this tangibly — signals a progressive nation that sees worth in its history, heritage, traditions and the creativity and dynamism of its people. Many governments in places around the world have realized the importance of culture not only in providing a sense of identity but in using it to engineer economic growth. It provides a major component in tourist attraction and boosts confidence in investors to invest in the region. The Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, conceived in order to stimulate economic development, has gentrified the area, generated thousands of jobs in employment and annually contributes millions of euros in additional income to the Basque Treasury. In Thailand, cultural tourism is one of the major sources of revenue while in Singapore, the government aggressively promotes and supports cultural activities for tourism and for campaigning the small country as a leading force in the world’s cultural stage. Then there is China, which has palpably been making waves worldwide with the increasing interest in its contemporary art market.

Yet with this bill, as John Silva, commenting on the same issue, wrote in his blog, “Our tourism industry will suffer considerably. If our society loses its unique tourist branding as one of the freest and most liberal in Asia to be replaced with a monastic authoritarian state, then who in their right mind would come and visit a poor version of Saudi Arabia?”

The long-term repercussions of the passage of the bill could be imagined in recalling one of the major cases of artistic intolerance of the 20th century. Adolf Hitler, despite being an undisputed patron and lover of art, particularly despised modern art, which was widely reflected in the Nazi’s cultural policy. These “forbidden” works of art were swiftly purged, sold (to fund the German war machine), burned or exhibited in “degenerate” art exhibitions with minors’ barred from seeing the works’ “obscene” content. Artists and cultural workers all over Europe fled for other countries more hospitable to their ideas. Many landed in New York and, post-World War II, they contributed in situating America as the cultural superpower of the 20th century, which became one of the US’s prime political tools — equating democracy with cultural freedom.

It is not an exaggeration to see possibly similar consequences of Nazi cultural policy to this bill. While artists would probably continue producing as usual, select art activities could be forced to go underground, increasing its isolation from a broader public. In addition, Philippine artists and cultural workers, particularly over the long-term, may simply migrate to other countries that value their artistic contributions more than their own nation does. It is tiring enough for local artists and art organizations to find funding, support and appreciation. But it is simply sickening to impose on the country’s cultural community a bill as unjust as this one.

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To read the full bill, download it from the Senate website at http://www.senate.gov.ph/lis/bill_res.aspx?congress=14&q=SBN-2464.

1 comment:

Melrose Fulgencio Website said...

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