The artist who set up that controversial Jesus Christ exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) the other week must be grinning and enjoying all that brouhaha that has made him the central object of attention in the last few days. With that single exhibition, he also brought to the fore one of the most interesting discussions about art, religion, public taste and democracy — meaning the constitutional right to freedom of expression. All this is, of course, very healthy and very good for Filipinos.
Now, let me contribute my two pesos worth in this melee. Bear in mind, I am an octogenarian. I have seen almost every major art museum in the world. I operated one of the earliest art galleries in Manila, Solidaridad, from 1967 to 1977, with the intention of giving our art a Filipino and an Asian face. I am also a novelist, and, as we all know, literature is the noblest of the arts. I am enumerating these not just to establish my bonafides but to show that I know whereof I speak.
The exhibit should not have been shown at the CCP. If submitted to my old gallery, I would have rejected it. It is not — I repeat — it is not art! It is an immature and juvenile attempt at caricature. I have not seen the exhibit itself but I have seen pictures of it and they are enough to convince me of the validity of my conclusion.
First, what is art? I go by this simple definition: Being an artist myself although I work with words not with the brush — if I can do it, it is not art. If I were to do the Jesus Christ commentary in oil, I would have used imagination, craftsmanship, and most important — originality. None of these basic qualities are in the CCP exhibit.
Our problem as art patrons and viewers is that we have somehow lost the capacity to discern, to criticize, and also to remember. We go back to the yesteryears, the masters we studied in school, the sculptors of ancient Greece and Rome, the classical writers as well, Homer, Cervantes all of them. Even without the superior implements and materials today, the many varieties of oils for the painters, and the modern cutting instruments powered by electricity, the artists of the ancient world were able to produce those sculptures and paintings that continue to delight us with their fine detail and their exquisite form.
Now, we say that there is a new way of looking at things and I agree, but the old verities remain: that artists are craftsmen, they are a special people, for not everyone can draw, or write.
As a writer myself, I work very hard at my novels. I know grammar although I am not a grammarian. On order, I can write in a few minutes a sonnet — it may not be good, but it will be a sonnet. I can close my eyes and describe imaginary scenes, dialogues, etc. And I write and rewrite and rewrite. In other words, a work of art is not created at the spur of a moment. It is cerebrated and worked out through time, with great effort, imagination and most important, craftsmanship.
When I was running Solidaridad Galleries and some young punk came to me with a sheaf of his abstract drawings, I would give him a pencil and ask him to draw my fist to find out if he could draw. Some of them didn’t come back. The late Hernando Ocampo whom I knew very well was a great craftsman with an acute understanding of color and he did paint so many pictures of dazzling brilliance and originality. If he could only draw, he could have gone very, very far.
I just saw the ongoing exhibit of Fred Aguilar Alcuaz in Cubao and much earlier that of Fred Liongoren. Both did abstracts, both can draw very well, just as many of the Impressionists of the 19th century were master craftsmen, too. My very good friend, Fr. Gaston Petit, who is a renowned painter and designer, has made an international reputation as an abstract painter, but he, too, can draw.
I bring to mind two women artists I admire very much: Gilda Cordero Fernando —she is a writer and, with a writer’s superior imagination, she has created beautiful pictures with exquisite craftsmanship. Julie Lluch, the sculptor, has also created in terracotta unusual figures that have no equivalent in reality — they are very imaginative and interesting. But she also sculpted busts, statues of people which exude character and are, therefore, memorable works of art.
There is so much anarchy in the world of art today and much of it is due to this dictum that there is “a new way of seeing things.” If I covered the Batasan building — all of it with black cloth — that is not only searing commentary, an achievement — it is also something new. But is it art?
If I put my excrement in a tin can, sealed it like a tin of sardines, that, too is interesting; but again, is it art? If I cut two huge pipes, fused them, is it art? Yet, these have happened and it is for us who know to point out that such happenings, such constructions — as they term it — are not art at all unless we give a new and ridiculous definition of art.
How I wish our artists would stop claiming freedom of expression all the time that they are criticized. To me freedom of expression is not involved with the CCP exhibit. Artistic sensibility and rigid critical values are the norm and they should prevail if our culture is to develop.
We have done it when we were young, put beards and blackened teeth on pictures of people. If I were to criticize religious faith visually, I would do it much better, more creatively than what this artist had done. The cross alone — I can do so much with it with allegory and symbolism. And this is what is precisely wrong with so many of our visual artists: for all their superb craftsmanship, they lack imagination and they don’t think hard enough. Then even sweet Jesus would understand; after all, in this earth His people who didn’t know what they were doing, beat Him up, crowned Him with thorns then crucified Him.