Understanding culture and culture change
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - December 8, 2014 - 12:00am

I was at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) last Tuesday for the opening of their publication shelves which exhibit books published by the Commission. I told them it is important to send such books to the provinces where there is so much need for them, particularly those with which we get to know ourselves better, our culture, our history. Self-knowledge will enable us to recognize our weaknesses so we can vanquish them — and our strengths with which we can propel ourselves to the future.

Such books must be edited carefully for accuracy even if written by venerable scholars. Though their intentions are sincere, they can get the wrong conclusions, particularly academics who attempt to describe our barrios and slums. Most Ph.Ds come from the middle classes — they don’t really know life in the lowest social strata.

I emphasized how important culture is for a people as divided as we are, because our ethnic differences are very real, the industry in one region, for instance and the abject laziness in others. Then, there is the fact that most of us being Christians, we were westernized, and much of our modern art is derivative, our traditional arts are folk. These we must lift up, use them as the matrix for creativity and excellence.

Most of our leaders, even officers of the NCCA, do not really understand or appreciate how important culture is in the development of a national identity, as the foundation of that sense of nation which should unite us. I would like to see this institution manned by officials who cultural workers like myself can respect.

Now, some definitions. The orthodox Marxist view posits that it is the economy which determines culture. I argue otherwise; it is culture that influences economic development and direction.

Broadly speaking, culture is a people’s way of life, defined by habit, geography, religion, history. It is also how a particular people think about themselves, their history, who they are, their indelible identity as conditioned by ethnicity, language, race. All these imperatives are expressed and manifested in their literature which is the noblest of the arts, their music, dance, architecture and visual arts. The arts not only define them but above all else, they are what binds a people together.

Culture is not static; it is always changing, often slowly, sometimes suddenly. Take Session Road in Baguio in the Fifties and the Sixties — it was not unusual then to see Igorot men in their G-strings there. In the market were wooden plates with serrated edges as hand-carved by them. The wooden stools with figurines carved solid from tree trunks, too.

These aren’t in the souvenir shops in Baguio anymore unless they are sold as antiques. First, the loincloth for men requires intricate weaving, hard work. It is much more convenient and cheaper now for the men to go around in jeans, more comfortable and with pockets.

There are no more trees for woodcarvers, and plates of ceramics and plastic are much cheaper and available readily. Many of the rice terraces in Ifugao are falling apart. Maintaining them is very hard work — why should anyone work so hard when money can be made easier with jobs in the cities? Culture change is inevitable with development. The Ifugao houses — many of them are now roofed with galvanized iron. The grass roof burns easily, is one reason.

Why should we deny our ethnics, refrigerators, TV and radio and gas stoves? Sure, we must know and maintain many aspects of their culture — the skills in weaving, woodcarving, for instance. But we must be prepared to lose many of those terraces to the natural growth of trees. As in the West, they will also be ruins in the future, except for some important and scenic ones that must be preserved for tourism and as monuments to the hardiness of the Ifugao spirit.

In other words, all our ethnics must modernize so that they will not be denied power and justice which they also deserve.

All these efforts to preserve the old houses of stone (bahay na bato) sure, such efforts are important. But how meaningful are they really to the masses of our people who live in the slums? Why not encourage our architects and builders to create models of low-cost housing as an aspect of social and urban renewal? What are the cheap and affordable materials, how can they be used imaginatively in the building of homes for our lower class?

All those media features of new and gourmet cooking, illustrating the best of Filipino cuisine — how about an emphasis on the agricultural produce that are available to the masa, with focus on their food and nutrient value? The marunggay, for instance, the winged bean — how can they be made more palatable?

And all those festivals that have developed in the last few decades in major towns and cities — the Penagbengga in Baguio, the Mascara in Bacolod — they were never really traditional in the sense that they were practiced a hundred or so years ago. Sure, they are useful exercises in building community solidarity. How about giving them more depth and significance and couple them with agricultural fairs, folk craft exhibitions, oral poetry contests and the recognition of a locale’s foremost achievers, cultural leaders like Manuel Arguilla in Bauang, La Union, Carlos Bulosan in Binalonan, Pangasinan?

We must not romanticize the backwardness of our folk. Sure, we must record their culture, study it and, from this base, we should then recreate new art forms. Cultural forms evolve and die; they should be replaced with forms of equal value. But let us not perpetuate bondage by celebrating and institutionalizing the past of the folk. Our ethnics, like our masa, should not wallow in the worship of tradition. They should learn to thrive in the modern world.

Meanwhile, the other evening, I had a most enlightening encounter with two Thai cultural leaders, Grittip Sirirattumrong and his wife, Atchara Tejapaibul. They were in town to attend a board meeting of the Druk Foundation. Grittip studied architecture at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The university has a dynamic center for the study of Southeast Asia. He is in charge of maintaining and preserving the palaces of the Thai royal family. His wife, on her own, is also a cultural worker and patron. Both are involved with the preservation of Siam’s cultural heritage. They collect and promote the traditional crafts of the country. They told me that King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit are themselves cultural activists. The Queen, particularly, promotes weaving and folk crafts in the provinces; she has encouraged provincial craftsmen to continue their work by buying what they have produced. She encourages them to practice and teach their craft to the young. She had taken some to stay in the Palace in Bangkok itself.

In maintaining and preserving the royal edifices, Grittip — as with woodcarvers and craftsmen in the Philippines, no longer has a ready supply of wood. Thailand’s teak forests are now denuded. He has also difficulty looking for excellent carpenters and wood workers. As an architect, he wants to see new forms emerge, blending with the traditional Thai elements and conforming with the demands of climate and environment. He is envious of our mahogany and of our kamagong.

We can take a cue from his experience as well as from the royal family’s support of the crafts.

Alas, it is a shame that most of our political leaders, unlike Thailand’s King and Queen, have little or no interest not just in folk arts but in our cultural development itself. The exceptions in the political leadership are few; in recent times, there are only Senators Letty Shahani, Edgardo J. Angara, Loren Legarda. Cory Aquino who painted some pretty pictures herself did not go beyond that personal hobby. P-Noy has not announced the confirmation of the National Artist Awards to this very day. His rejection of Nora Aunor as National Artist reveals his indifference to the arts.

And in so many instances, the cultural workers themselves do not fully understand the significance of culture in the formation of an all-inclusive national identity.

Repertory Philippines has not given enough attention to the development of the Filipino stage which it could have easily done with its superb actors and directors. I do not know how much was spent in the modern dance production of Rama Hari — an adaptation of the Indian classic the "Ramayana." That effort and money should have been spent on presentation of any of the Filipino epics, or great stories from our history.

All too often, so much money is also spent on production sets at the Cultural Center. Ancient Greek drama which was presented to prince and peasant alike did not have such marvelous settings. The best of stage productions by Filipino playwrights should be seen by a wider audience in the provinces, in the city itself, and not confined to the middle and upper class cognoscenti. Drama is far more effective than literature in entertaining and convincing people — it is visual, direct, and audience approval is immediate.

It is the same with music — sure, almost every town has a brass band which familiarizes the masa with the classics. But there is not enough talent going around to places where the masa congregate. I bring to mind that patriot musician, Gilopez Kabayao, playing the violin in cockpits and public schools in the Sixties when he was still very young. How I wish there were more like him: It is too bad that a rich Filipino company like San Miguel disbanded its symphony orchestra when that orchestra could very well play in the provinces to give the best of our music to the masa which is its best beer customer.

Developing folk crafts — aside from its cultural and artistic necessity — contributes to the modernization process. People skilled in the use of their hands, trained in the tradition of craftsmanship and excellence are important assets in the industrialization of a feudal and agrarian society. Japanese craftsmanship as evident in its folk crafts was transferred into industry, which explains the high quality of Japanese industrial products, including those most delicate manufactures that propelled Japanese economic growth.

If I had the power to create institutions of government, I would make NCCA into a Department of Culture and under it, I would have the Bureau of Tourism, not a Department. You do not put the cart before the horse — it is the horse out front and the cart behind it. You develop a nation’s culture so that the tourists will come to see it, enjoy it and even live it.

A highly civilized nation like France has such a ministry and is usually led by the country’s leading cultural icons. Other Western countries may not have such departments, but they have institutions in so many branches of government concerned with the development of culture and of the arts.

If such a department will ever be created in the future, it should include supervision of all the museums and libraries in the country, commissions like the National Historical Commission, the Board of Censors. It will oversee, for instance, the naming of streets, the national festivals, the monuments in public spaces, etc. And it will work closely with the Department of Education and the Commission of Higher Education.

In aspiring for excellence in the arts, we need a strong critical tradition to validate excellence as well as do away with the chaff and expose it for what it is. We have so many poseurs, counterfeits passing themselves off as cultural arbiters and icons — in media those so-called cultural writers who heap hosannas on dubious cultural presentations, painters who cannot draw, composers who create noise not music.

To achieve this, we have to change our mindsets, too. That is the most difficult part of culture change.

ANCIENT GREEK ANN ARBOR ARTS ATCHARA TEJAPAIBUL BOARD OF CENSORS BUREAU OF TOURISM CULTURAL CULTURE FOLK IFUGAO
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