writings, projects and exhibitions of Clarissa Chikiamco

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Struggle for Philippine Art - Then and Now (Part 1)

I'm posting my article which appeared in yesterday's Philippine Star. I've had some interesting feedback/reactions and I've been enjoying having a discussion. So for those who haven't and been wanting to, do feel free to email me.

On another note - someone emailed thinking that my article was calling for a board/committee to regulate the art scene and told me it was a crazy idea. I agree - that's a crazy idea! That's definitely not what I'm after and I'm hoping most understood it was really ethics I was advocating - a community that doesn't need a committee and written rules because it has the maturity to value ethics and practice it. There are always going to be dodgy people wanting to do dodgy things but if the community truly values ethics, it can regulate itself. If majority, for example, refuse to work with people who are guilty of perpetuating conflicts of interest, these people will have no choice but to conform to the "rules" majority abide by. It was actually quite interesting to witness this in practice during my time abroad - to see how their system operated and to question why it operates this way.

The Struggle for Philippine Art - Then and Now

The ongoing Ayala Museum exhibition “A Vision of Philippine Art,” featuring selected artworks from the collection of art patroness and Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) founder Purita Kalaw-Ledesma (1914-2005), is best complemented by a reading of The Struggle for Philippine Art, the book which Ledesma and Amadis Guerrero co-authored in 1974. Indeed, to comprehend Ledesma’s vision, this book is requisite reading as it outlines the difficulties in the Philippine art scene back in the day and how these setbacks were managed when artists at that time had yet to earn even the basic recognition as, Ledesma and Guerrero have written, “‘respectable’ member (s) of society.” Looking at how artists are today held in such high esteem and earning adequately (even highly), it seems that the Philippine art scene has progressed significantly from the time the AAP was founded over 60 years ago.

In reading the book, however, it seems inescapably that many of the issues present in the art scene then are still issues that are at hand now, albeit perhaps in different forms. Reviewing some of these issues seems to be a worthy endeavor if only to remind ourselves that, for the Philippine art scene, there is still a lot more work to be done.


A most salient issue in the founding of the AAP, an association for artists, collectors, benefactors and enthusiasts, was its professionalization. Unethical practices were a concern as were payment of dues, tardiness and its running as an organization. An AAP board member, businessman C.M. Hoskins, assisted in addressing these — having the AAP run like a business and putting strict measures in place so compliance on dues and submissions became a necessity. At that time, the AAP was a critical organization in advancing Philippine art so membership, and therefore the requirements for membership, were essential.

Today, membership in any organization is needless for those practicing in the arts (artists, writers, curators, those who work in and with galleries and museums). While this resembles art scenes abroad which have no overarching structure regulating it, it seems ours in particular is characteristic of an anarchic free-for-all, which fails to put a firm grip on — and a halt — to slippery unethical practices.

For one, the pervading artist-gallery system allows artists to show in several galleries. While there is nothing wrong with this in itself — even allowing artists more freedom — this also leaves artists vulnerable to being approached directly by collectors and dealers who want to pay only artist prices, even haggling for discounts, a very awkward position for artists to be in. The loose arrangements give too much room to those who do not have the artists’ best interests in mind. Galleries, for their part, will of course only take an artist so far without exclusive contracts or commitments.

The issue of fakes and authentication also abound. The prevailing system for authentication seems to be guided only by “experts’” eyes, or that of the artist’s family, and while the eye is arguably and will always be critical here, one wishes that there was a kind of science involved to ground these findings, particularly when the authentication is in dispute. The practice as well of charging percentage of the artwork’s value (for authenticating) or percentage of sales (curating in commercial galleries) are also inherent conflicts of interest that put judgment on the line. Flat fees should be the norm here.

Also existing are dodgy publications — a magazine, for example, that purports to be about Philippine art but misleads in its promotion of a certain gallery and its artists. There is also the case of a contributing writer in one daily newspaper who will write a feature or “review” on an artist — if the artist pays a fee of a certain amount. Writers for exhibitions, on the other hand, are fortunate if the gallery even allots a budget to pay them for their work, rather than leaving it to the artist as an option. Payment for writers by galleries should already be standard.

There are certainly other matters that can fall here — the art scene is not without its gripes or its scandals. Professionalizing the art scene, however, entails more than simply fixing procedures and having rules. It is having people recognize, practice and, most significantly, value ethics in the arts. While the AAP had been there in earlier days to try to have artists and others toe the line, for the art scene to mature in these times, there is a need for community and self-policing, grounded in a comprehension and expectation of trust certain positions and tasks hold.

Being Behind The Art Scene Abroad; The Quest For International Recognition

The Struggle for Philippine Art notes, ‘‘Foreigners who came to see works of Filipino artists during the early ’50s invariably commented that they lagged behind the rest of the world….” The same might be said today at least in terms of media being used. While video and installation have become the predominant media abroad, which is very apparent in the defining art exhibitions of our times — the biennales — most artists locally are still painting.

Artists should be able to choose their medium, whether it be painting, performance, photography, video or installation. There is absolutely nothing amiss in painting. The problem, however, is if patronage is situated in such a way that artists feel like they have no choice but to paint to make a living and therefore avoid or very limitedly explore other media in effect. Artists abroad can afford to be more ambitious in their undertakings, knowing that there are institutions and collectors who acquire media of a reproducible nature, massive difficult-to-store installations and art with materials of inherent vices. There is also the reward, for impressive artists of any media, of major commissions by different institutions, biennales and art fairs. Painting is fine as a medium but how dominant would the medium be here in the Philippines if artists were assured of the same buttress if they chose to specialize in something else? There are too few institutions and individuals who are backing contemporary art beyond painting. The art scene is not determined only by the artists — patronage should never be undermined in its critical role in shaping the art scene and creating opportunities for how far artists, as well as curators, can go.

Ledesma and Guerrero expressed optimism about the graphic arts back then, “‘Because the materials are inexpensive… and because one can print as many copies as one wishes, it has less appeal. However, through the years it has progressed from a mere hobby to an art form, and in the years to come, it will surely gain in importance.” Those in the position to give different media due importance are those who write, commission and collect (and therefore, preserve). Nearly 40 years after the book was written, art of reproducible media has still to secure robust support in the art scene here.

Interconnecting with this is the pursuit for international recognition. As Ledesma and Guerrero wrote back then, ‘‘The feeling grew that the Flipino artist was as good as anyone, and the only way to demonstrate this was to compete in international competitions. Consequently it became the ambition of many Filipino artists to be represented in the biennales.” While there are sprinklings of Filipino artists in such exhibitions, then as today, the Philippines has yet to make a heavyweight name for itself in contemporary art as, for example, China has in recent years. This, however, is not simply a matter of art itself. Ledesma and Guerrero, writing of the Philippine participation in the 1962 biennale, astutely observed, ‘‘When the Filipino artists and committee members arrived in Venice, they found that successful participation in an exhibit of this magnitude was not based on artistic merit alone. Money, government support, politicking and an aggressive or promotions campaign counted too.” The international recognition of a country’s artists can really sometimes be as substantial as the budget it provides for it.

(To be continued.)

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The author may be reached at letterstolisa@gmail.com. Her art writings are at http://writelisawrite.blogspot.com.

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