writings, projects and exhibitions of Clarissa Chikiamco

Monday, April 26, 2010

Posthuman Monstrosities, Posthuman Toys

I slightly adjusted the catalogue text I wrote on Ronald Ventura's works for A Duad in Play, a joint exhibition he had with Francis Ng, to reprint as an article for The Philippine Star. I do this from time to time with catalogue texts I write as this way it gets wider readership.

Please click here to read it. You can also buy a copy of The Philippine Star today.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Dictatorial Whiffs

The second of two articles I wrote on the National Artist Award controversy. It was published in September last year (direct link to the article in Philippine Star).

Dictatorial Whiffs

The National Artist Award controversy that continues to spin out reminds me of an event in history with similar undertones — art under Adolf Hitler and the Nazis during the Third Reich.

Hitler and the Nazis were probably among the greatest art patrons of the twentieth century. Art under the Third Reich became an intrinsic part of political ideology that was pursued with great rabidity. The degree of Hitler’s interest (he had once aspired to be an artist) in the arts was not only intense but extremely detailed. For the exhibition of “great” German art in 1937, for example, he even personally looked through the over 15,000 submissions and threw out those he didn’t like in a rage.

What is reminiscent of this National Artist Award controversy is that the prerogative of Hitler as fuhrer and state “taste” trumped over those of German art curators at that time. In a bid to reinforce “true” German identity, the Nazis chose to patronize art that was similar to 19th century genre works of German painters. These were figurative, easily recognizable subject matters like showing the German peasant doing work in the fields or the superior Aryan race in assorted aspects of everyday life. It was an art for the masses — something that could be effortlessly understood.

While art for the masses was celebrated by the state and a Nazi newspaper sang “Are they not brothers — the artists and the soldiers?” German art curators on the other hand worked fervently to protect the art of their taste — modern art that had been flourishing in the country since World War I. Modern art was practically an enemy of the state as the Nazis swiftly began to execute a purge of modern works and prohibited artists from making modern art. Many of the modern artists fled Germany as the Nazis escalated in their intolerance. An exhibition of degenerate art was staged in 1937 where they hung modern works alongside art of the mentally ill in what can be seen as childishly poking fun at art they didn’t understand or simply couldn’t appreciate. Then in 1939, in a Berlin fire department exercise, thousands of works were burned as a “final solution” to these “degenerate” pieces.

Many artists and cultural workers of the modern movement from all over Europe fled to the United States as the Nazis spread their reach. Most landed in New York, which, in the aftermath of World War II, became the world’s bastion of modernism and progression, an identity it still champions to this day. As modern art triumphed and its legacy was engraved into the world’s art history, the “great” German art and the “art for the masses” heralded by the Nazis fell into shame and obscurity.

Art’s Elite Nature

Art should never be evaluated by how many people benefited or enjoyed the artist’s work (the argument of Carlo Caparas that he deserves the award more than others based on how many people he hired and how many have watched his movies). The elitist nature of art is an inevitable component of the art world. It is naturally only a few who first begin to appreciate art’s forerunners before it begins to enjoy broad acceptance. The elite here is not about moneyed persons but rather those who lead in recognizing and assigning artistic value. It is by their appreciation — spread through ways like writing, patronage and inclusion in projects — that gradually more people come to appreciate these works as well.

As a specialized field, however, there will always be things that a person outside the art world will not be able to instantly understand or begin to immediately appreciate. Art appreciation takes a fair bit of education or repeated exposure to art at the very least — a very difficult reality in a developing country. Many well-known figures of the art scene will always remain unknown to those with more pressing concerns. Yet, this does not mean that their art is of less substance than those who do art through commercial endeavors, which naturally has a wider reach, or those who spread art for educational purposes. Is this a popularity contest? A charity award? Or an award about the arts?

Dictatorial Whiffs

Artists and cultural workers who have been against the President’s choices have been slapped by their opposition with tags of elitism and anti-GMA sentiments. If being elitist means being able to recognize the value of something in one’s own expertise and trusting the process by which artists become artists by their field’s experts and colleagues, it is the way that the art world operates and should be respected, again, as a field of specialization, rather than criminalized as pure snobbery. One doesn’t become an artist respected, studied and admired by later generations of artists and the public simply by the President’s choice. The complex system which art operates in is suddenly undermined by the President’s whim.

The Palace keeps saying it’s within the President’s legal right to name whom she chooses. Is it legal? I’m not sure but I’m definitely sure it’s not right. The example of Hitler imposing his favored artists on the masses and the art world was a strong enough lesson that these things do not bode well in the long run. Yet, decades later, here is a President who is again not simply meddling but dictating in a cultural affair. In an article in Manila Bulletin last Aug. 26, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita kept reiterating the President’s authoritarian right, the emphasis of defense having shifted from the Honors Committee to the President’s absolute entitlement in the wake of the Supreme Court investigation: “The President is within her authority to make the final decision, especially as to who will be rewarded or who should not be rewarded”; “We believe in the primacy of the President’s authority as the one mandated by the law to be the one to make the final choice”; “The President has the final say on those that should be awarded.” The word “final” is another way of saying that the Palace is not able to adequately satisfy, at least to the art community, its exclusion and inclusions and so, like an embarrassed bully caught with its pants down, it starts throwing its weight around. This seems confirmed by the taunts of the National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA) chair Vilma Labrador, an ardent supporter of NCCA executive director Cecile Guidote-Alvarez around whom, upon being named National Artist for Theater while in office and serving as the Presidential adviser for culture and the arts, much of the controversy abounds. With the Supreme Court looking into the matter, Labrador suddenly declared, as reported in an Inquirer article last Aug. 29, that “The battle is over” — that the proclamation for National Artists was already signed July 6 and that critics could continue to wail all they want about it but that the matter was already a done deal.

This was also likewise declared in an announcement by the Office of the President last Wednesday, stating that the conferment cannot be overturned by the Supreme Court. More alarmingly come reports that National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera, who has been strongly opposing the President’s interference in the current controversy, is being monitored by military intelligence, inquiring and taking photos of his house in Quezon City. One of the spies was caught by village security and was identified by his Armed Forces ID as Corporal Hannival Guerrero.

The Honors Committee as merely an advisory body does not alleviate the dictatorial whiffs surrounding this controversy. It must also be emphasized that the persons in the Honors Committee are not qualified to advise on these matters unless they are in the arts and if they are, they should only be qualified to advise in the field of their specialization. A National Artist for Literature’s support for the nomination for a National Artist for Theater (as other articles reported) does not carry merit. A senator as one of the committee members giving his opinion about the nominations for an art award is also obviously lacking in being able to make an adequate judgment.

When the actual experts qualified to make the decision protest about the judgments of the Honors Committee and the President, some people have the arrogance to say they are simply anti-GMA and that they have their own interests in profiting from their own choices in mind. It needs to be spelled out that it doesn’t matter who the President is, it’s what she’s done. And least from these protesting minds is how they can profit from respecting the choices of the panels of experts who went through several exhausting months of deliberations to come up with their choices — only to have others imposed and one cast aside — all in the name of the “Presidential prerogative.”

The debate on the Presidential prerogative has been present since President Ramos inserted his own awardee and with every insertion thereafter. If there is such a furor now, it is because the blatant interference, the inclusion of four names and the dropping of one, riled up this debate to an astonishing extent that is completely warranted. Admittedly, the art community should have forced a solution to this issue in the first instance rather than waiting for a situation like this to happen to unify their call. Yet, suggesting that the issue is about disliking GMA and describing experts as elitist hacks who don’t recognize the significance of the inserted names’ bodies of work reek of desperation.

Regardless of what happens in the Supreme Court investigation, time, the ultimate arbiter of art, will weigh upon the inserted selections of the President, helped along by those who write the art history books and stage major retrospectives of those worthy of the honor. What is an award and title anyway if it is not respected by those in the field it is supposed to honor and even stains the life work that one has done? The money won’t last and medals are, in reality, simply an accessory. But to have one’s art recognized and appreciated, surpassing death and generations? That’s something to aspire for, with a designation or without one.

National Artist Award: When 'Experts' Weigh In

Below is the first of two articles I wrote in August of last year when the whole National Artist Award controversy exploded. It still seems timely to post it in my blog at the moment when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) just last month replaced board members in the National Museum and the Cultural Center of the Philippines shortly before the Philippine Presidential elections take place next month.

Link to the article in the Philippine Star website.

National Artist Award: When 'Experts' Weigh In

Art and film e-groups are a-buzzing about the latest declaration of the National Artist Award. With the tag “dagdag-bawas,” the National Artist Award, supposedly the most eminent award bestowed upon a Filipino artist, is yet again stained by the politics of its selection. As of press time, a symbolic protest, a necrological service for the National Artist Award, was going to be held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

The issue most plaguing the National Artist Award is that it allows the Philippine President to bypass the lengthy selection process done by panels on CCP and NCCA to confer the National Artist Award on a person of his or her choosing. That this option should even exist is absurd. This presidential prerogative needs to be axed for it ridicules the artists the award seeks to honor and all of us who work in the arts community.

To make it seem that the final selections of the president are legitimate, there was a supposed “honors” committee that made nominations (asides from those provided by CCP and NCCA), deliberated and confirmed the selections. Yet, the two questions many of us have been asking are who the people in the honors committee are and exactly what are their art credentials? Is MalacaƱang ever going to release their names? Or is the President’s office too afraid that once the members of the honors committee are made transparent, the indefensible way names to the Awards were dropped and added will be exposed? If the members of the panel are art experts, they should not fear in immediately releasing the full list and who recommended whom.

The political nature of the award is even made more evident by bestowing it upon Cecile Guidote Alvarez, the current presidential adviser on culture and executive director of the NCCA. An article in another paper cited the Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita as defending the conferment of the title on Alvarez, saying, “She didn’t deliberate on herself. We have the honors committee that does that. It does not disqualify her. She was chosen, and Cecille Guidote has been active in theater even before she got married to (Presidential Adviser on Climate Change and former Senator) Heherson Alvarez. She’s a student of Fr. (James) Reuter. She’s really good.”

The National Artists Award guidelines in September 2007 in the NCCA website says that “NCCA and CCP Board members and consultants and NCCA and CCP officers and staff are automatically disqualified from being nominated.” Yet, as we have seen, the loophole is that one can simply be selected by the President to bypass that nomination process. Alvarez may have built many performing arts organizations but the conferment of the title upon her while she holds office is a blatant conflict of interest. Also, the award for theater is conferred for direction, performance and/or production design. So future articles and statements supposedly defending Alvarez’s conferment should focus on these aspects of her contribution to theater rather than on her founding of programs or organizations.

NCCA chair and Education Undersecretary Vilma Labrador dared to say that critics should not put any “political color” in the award and even managed to insult those in CCP-NCCA who put together their list of recommendations by saying, “Sometimes there are people who simply ignore the credentials or greatness of some persons because of some personal agenda... If there will be another group to look at the credentials, there is a balance, there is validation.” With the amount of e-mails that have been flooding e-groups and the articles in the news these days with howls of protest, it is evident that there isn’t a balance but an obvious disparity. There certainly seems to be no validation either by the arts community for Alvarez or Carlos Caparas, the other recently named National Artist who the arts community is protesting against. And as for the personal agenda Labrador mentions, is the honors committee or the President actually free from this? For surely there was a reason that Ramon Santos was dropped as National Artist for music. Or was it a matter of other people thinking that their expertise trumped those of the panel of experts that endorsed Santos?

Labrador has defended that the current awardees fit the criteria for National Artist. Yet Labrador’s own field of specialization isn’t in the arts at all but in education, which does not qualify her to make such a sweeping statement about who deserves a National Artist Award or not. It illustrates that the clash in this year’s awarding stems from some people obviously thinking they are expert or know enough about the arts to decide or defend the National Artist selections while others, which seems to be many who regularly work in the arts, disagree with their judgment. Becoming an expert in a particular field in the arts is a long, arduous and complicated process. It involves more than Ermita saying Alvarez is “really good.”

I also have to admit that I am quite irritated at the award guidelines as saying, “These achievements are measured in terms of their vision, unusual insight, creativity and imagination, technical proficiency of the highest order in expressing Filipino culture and traditions, history, way of life, and aspirations.” While the awards should be limited to Filipino citizens, it should not be bestowed upon them for their art’s “Filipino identity” but for their art’s excellence, whether this deals with Filipino identity or not. The awards must progressively recognize that art is transnational and not simply a tool for nation-building.