Monday, September 19, 2011

Miss Universes and "Universals"

1. No such thing as a stupid question, only a stupid situation

FIRST things first. There's no such thing as a stupid question.
     Even Lea Salonga's supposedly inane question to Miss Angola Leila Lopes (who'd go on to win the Miss Universe crown this year), dubbed by feminist columnist Jessica Ravitz as "the dumbest question in the universe," isn't actually all that dumb if you put everything in context. "If you could change one of your physical characteristics," Salonga asked Lopes, "which one would it be and why?" According to Ravitz, ". . . it's absurd to be dismayed that a question like this would be posed at a beauty pageant. In my worldview, the mere fact that pageants exist is absurd. And I'm not alone."
     Well, I don't think she gets it. Context is everything, and, in this case, Salonga's question---actually all the questions were pre-written by the pageant committee and assigned each judge, says Salonga---was "a standard beauty contest query" that should only nudge us in our turn to ask about the motive behind the asking. Salonga hit the nail on the head when she wrote to CNN, "At the end of the day, it wasn't so much the question asked but the manner in which it was answered." After all, weren't all those questions asked during those Miss Universe pageants in the past designed to primarily test how a candidate might respond to future "stupid" questions that are going to be hurled her way in yacht parties she'll be attending as Miss Universe? Look at it this way, if you are to apply today for an account executive position at an ad agency, a position servicing that agency's stupid clients, and you wax philosophical during your interview about the world today as though you were Bell Hooks, I'm perfectly certain you wouldn't get the job. Precisely because no interviewer would probably have the mental wherewithal, in the first place, to ask questions about those areas of thought. Would anyone on those yacht parties hurl such questions as Bell Hooks might? Mm, maybe. Would there be people likely to ask the kind of questions Salonga just asked? Oh, I would assume---most definitely!
     My Facebook friend JCA wrote, "But I guess the shallowness of the questions is telling of how the organizers view their contestants." That's almost a given, similar perhaps to how designers and fashion show organizers view their adolescent models. But, again, that truth would still have to be put in context. After all, what use is the Miss Universe contest and winners to, say, Mr. Donald Trump, in the first place? The most creative and most introspective mind potentially useful to a long life of struggles in the business world never does win the "apprentice of the year" prize in Trump's The Apprentice (U.S.), does s/he, the same way that the best singer does not necessarily have to win the American Idol of the year plum. At the Miss Universe, it's not really the questions and the answers to any question that matter, it's the delivery, as Salonga rightly observed. Otherwise, the Miss Universe Q&A portion would be traditionally done in an interrogation room with cameras and would invariably last the length of a David Letterman Show interview, complete with a band to break the boredom. That is, a faux pas of an answer here could always be clarified or retracted there. Nobel laureates, after all, don't give quick answers, do they? We do not measure their intelligence by the swiftness of their replies nor by an absence of an "uhhhm, well". And as for defensiveness, Hillary Clinton's has no place in the Miss Universe contest, yet she's universally counted as one hell of a charm.
     To recap, the Miss Universe position is an account executive or account manager position. It's a low, starter's position in high society. There's no way Filipino ad industry stalwart Emily Abrera could now win a Miss Universe spot, is there? Again, I'm not saying that pretty-faced account executives can't possibly know anything about, say, Edward Said's postcolonial theories. I'm just saying they'd seldom be allowed to use that knowledge in their financial district jobs.
     But, still, there's definitely room for improvement regarding JCA's concern, reiterated by her friend Lea: "If the Ms. U. organizers are the ones preparing the questions, aren't they also underestimating the intelligence of their judges?" Well, Lea, Donald Trump underestimates the intelligence of everyone in the whole universe. But, then again, you and JCA are actually right. So that presently it might be useful to suggest to the Miss Universe pageant owners that perhaps, next time, Miss Universe contestants can come onstage in office attire for the Q&A portion. Or, if still in their gowns and in a pose, maybe while holding a wineglass, so for these candidates to be able to feel a sort of corridor meeting or yacht party situation feel in their heads, within which role-playing they could just be led to display their real brains beyond being those by merely smiling, nervous candidates onstage who have to pass a stupid test while a klieg light burns. This role-playing segment might have an effect likewise on the question-writing staff. . . . Now, even if we are to adapt this role-playing sort of Q&A segment to an in-their-swimsuits situation, supposedly a more frightening experience, the candidates can still be rendered wet and in the process of drying themselves with towels while being asked their questions, if only so that our ideal resultant could be achieved. I can assure you, such role-playing---whether with gowns or swimsuits---would break the ice. Because any candidate necessarily placed in a situation of utter nervousness when confronted with a question needing a quick answer cannot predict how her posing in front of a lot of people in an uncomfortable gown or Speedo can affect her alertness. Even a female Einstein would be trembling in that situation, and would likely feel as though she were in a Guantanamo prison being played on by a bunch of US Marines. When the most intelligent candidate fails to come through that nervous field, she gets demerits and ultimately fails to grab the crown. The merely charming and merely most diplomatic wins.

2. No such thing as an easy question, only easy situations

NOW let's go visit the question for Shamcey Supsup, who would become this 2011 contest's third runner-up: "Would you change your religious beliefs to marry the person that you love? Why or why not?"
     Some were saying this was a tad more difficult than the one given to Miss Angola. But, if my backyard statistics is right, most said this was way too easy, the too-obvious answer being a quick no.
     A Philippine Star write-up titled "How they would have answered that question" interviewed five former Filipina beauty queens. Interestingly, or not surprisingly, depending on where you're coming from, all gave that "obvious answer" in varying modes of articulateness.
     But was it really an easy question deserving of an easy answer? I believe an easier compound question would have been something like: "would you change your political beliefs to marry the person that you love? Why or why not?" But even then, putting aside the submission element in it, any answer is actually correct. "No," if one's beliefs are deep and passionate and utterly personal, "yes" if one's politics is shallow or if one has the heart of a spy. Now, having written that, I wonder if we could apply the same formula to the question for Supsup. "No," if one's religious beliefs are deep and passionate and utterly personal, "yes" if one's religious beliefs are shallow (cafeteria or cultural) or if one has the worldly heart of a multi-cultural syncretist. As for the submission part, there are a lot of reasons why one would do that. A certain tribe might require a would-be spouse's religious conversion for him/her to gain access to a conjugal wealth which might include a chain of hotels or oil derricks. Uhm, Mr. X, would you change your religion in order to marry Paris Hilton? Not that easy a question now, is it?

3. No such thing as one Universe, only universals

STILL on Supsup, my Facebook friend J- called his friends' attention to an ABS-CBN report which seemed to have been oddly written. The report zoomed in on Supsup's admission that her boyfriend had actually changed his religion for her. She is a "Christian", she's supposed to have said, and her boyfriend was formerly "Catholic".
     J- wrote: "Since when were Catholics not Christians? Don't get me wrong, I'm not a big Catholic but we were the first Christian church!"
     I had to correct J-, of course, with my modest knowledge of Christian history, thusly: "Actually the first Christians were the Jewish Christians before there were even Gentile Christians. The Jewish Christians included the Corinthians, the Ebionites, the Elcesaites, the Essenes, and the Nazarene/Nazoraean sect. Then, the first post-Jesus Jerusalem church was established by James the Just (some say with Paul), the leader of the Jewish Christian Church (Catholics insist with Peter as the "Rock" and "Chief Shepherd"). Then, even before Peter and Paul could arrive in Rome, Eastern Christianity was already being established in Asia Minor in what would later branch out to become the Church of the East, the churches of Oriental Orthodoxy, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Eastern Catholic Churches, and the Saint Thomas Christians. Even the Early Church in the Roman Empire, the prototype of the Latin Church of Constantine I (that was itself proto-Catholic), cannot be said to have already been the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today. The Roman Catholic Church, as we know it today, actually started when it was established by the emperors Theodosius I, Gratian and Valentinian II in 380 AD, when Latin Church Christianity (instead of the other Christianities, like that one by a group that would later be called Gnostic Christianity) was declared as the empire's state religion. This was at the same time that Damasus I was the Pope (who reigned till 384), when the Roman aristocracy started to take over the Church at the start of the decline of the Roman Empire. Damasus commissioned the Vulgate translation of the Bible, the early Roman Catholic Bible, and called for the Council of Rome during tensions with Bishop Nectarius of Constantinople."
     Notice that I always modified "Catholic" with the adjective "Roman". J- Facebook-liked my comment and thanked me.
     J-'s friend A- joined me, saying: "Of course not. You're not the first Christian church."
     Notice A-'s use of "church". She didn't write "yours is not the first . . ." but "you're not the . . ." Bear that in mind, because Christian authorities would repeatedly teach that the church is neither that building by the marketplace nor that institution with a flag but the people, the following of Jesus. That following can exist without a church building or a flag, and thus A-'s use of the word in her clause "you're not the first church" makes complete sense.
     J-'s friend JC chimed in, refuting my and A-'s offers, saying: "The first Christian church was the Catholic Church. Other Christian churches were just offshoots and splinter groups. Isn't this true, Kuya J-?"
     Another of J-'s friends, JBC, also joined us: "Regardless, all Christians believe in one Judeo-Christian God. Why do we have to argue about who came first when, at the end of the day, we all believe in the same divine entity?"
     JC had to add this: "Sure, dissension happened. But the original is the original."
     "Go ahead," I wrote. "If you think the Roman Catholic Church was established in 12 or 30 AD or thereabouts instead of in 380 AD by Theodosius, suit yourself, JC, I wouldn't be surprised. Nonetheless, JBC is right."
     J- Facebook-liked this, but so did JC, adding: "Thank you!"
     JC also Facebook-liked another comment from another of J-'s friends, Father V-, when the latter entered the conversation. Father V- wrote: "That's quite a splintered understanding of what the church is," referring to my splintered understanding. "When one associates the Church with a mere political faction, because Paul did this or Constantine did that, one cannot get the full picture of what the Catholic church is all about. This is seeing the church as a mere institution. But the Church is more than just a human society, and it's more than just a title. The Church, Catholic and apostolic, began when Christ brought it into the world, founding it upon his apostles, especially upon Peter. This is the Christian Church, which is only One, and which subsists in union with Peter and the successors of the apostles, who have kept the faith whole and entire despite the passage of time, despite the errors of the centuries."
     This is true, too, at least for 2nd-century claims to universalism and for claims to continuity from the church of Jesus' Apostles, for even when Protestants use the word "catholic" (with a lower-case letter c), they also use it not to refer to the Catholic Church alone but broadly to the Christian Church (regardless of denominational affiliation) and all believers in Jesus Christ all over the world, across all ages. Therefore, put aside Father V-'s Roman Catholic "especially upon Peter" emphasis and Father V-'s institutional claim that the Christian Church as One subsists in union with Peter. Put aside all the Romanism, and you'll be able to imagine the idea of inclusivism in catholicism (even via Catholicism), wherein one can embrace even those who believe Mary Magdalen was Jesus' right hand instead of Peter (Gnostic Christians, for instance).
     Now, JC loved what Father V- wrote, writing: "Yes, Father. Got it! We are the original."
     Well, if universalism (or "catholicism") also means being inclusive and Father V- would nod his head in agreement, then obviously JC couldn't have gotten it.
     I wrote, "@Father V-: Would that it were so," and I meant that the Catholic Church was not also---or was not firstly---a political entity with a divisive history and policy, "then the world would have been a much better place."
     "JC and A-," wrote J-, now seeming to have changed his mind about his post, "being 'first' is beside the point, is it not? The decorous bearing of the matter is, we are a Christian church, too. Right? :)"
     JC Facebook-liked this.
     "Ok," he wrote, "the Catholic Church is a Christian church. Christians are followers of Christ. Catholics follow Christ and his teachings . . ." and so on. I thought that was that with JC.
     Father V- came back: "By the term Catholic, meaning universal, we mean that Christians follow and believe all of the doctrines taught by Christ handed down to His Apostles by way of Scripture and tradition, teachings necessary for one to fully heed the call of Our Lord to holiness. In this sense, to be truly a follower of Christ, one needs to be catholic, universal."
     JC and another A- (A2, let's call him) Facebook-liked this. Actually, there's almost nothing worth protesting against in this statement if only the Father wasn't confusing "Catholic" with "catholic" in his explanation, almost as if to hide a logical fallacy (the 'God is love, love is blind, therefore God is blind' kind of logical fallacy) to service a metanarrative.
     I had to call A-'s reaction to this: "@A: By your comment above, I gather you're Protestant? If you are, then by Father V- you do not follow and believe all of the doctrines taught by Christ blah blah blah, you can't fully heed the call of our Lord. You are not a true follower of Christ. The only way by which you can be that is by becoming C/catholic, by becoming 'universal'."
     Father V- promptly answered my satire with a confirmation: "Well, basically that's what being a disciple is, right? It basically means following everything that the Master did and said and taught. Otherwise, what kind of disciples are we? By the word 'Catholic' (Father V-'s capitalization, not mine) I'm referring to a reality, not a denomination. We don't call ourselves catholics (Father V-'s lower case, not mine) for nothing. The name Catholic stemmed from the fact that in the Reform worked by Luther his followers broke away from Christian teaching and praxis, selecting those that were in accord with their personal beliefs and ideals and rejecting those with which they were not in accord."
     JC Facebook-liked this. Well, put aside the Father's confusing catholic with Catholic, as if catholicism or universalism is exclusive to Catholics. Lay aside the fact that Martin Luther was mainly questioning the papacy's corrupted adherence to the bright ideas concerning Purgatory and the selling of indulgences. Put aside the fact that Luther was only seeking reforms (thus Reformed) from within instead of from without, but kicked out instead by the corrupt Catholic hierarchy of his time. Put aside the fact that to imply in our time that Pope Leo X's indulgences salesmen were following Christian teaching and praxis is tantamount to qualifying and reiterating Pope Leo X's virtue on these same indulgences-selling during his time, and thus for our time. Put aside the fact that to call Pope Leo X's corruption as "within Christian praxis" could reintroduce a scandal. Put all those aside, . . . if only because Father V- was not yet finished with the Luther question.
     He continued: ". . . this is far from the logic of discipleship; the disciple is bound to his master insofar as his master is concerned. Either he accepts his master totally, and all of his teaching and the practices that he has taught him, or he is no follower of his. This is perfectly logical, and this is more so true of Christianity. When the Lord came among us as man he showed us the Father; by His teaching and actions he instituted the norm by which his followers would be known . . . this was entrusted to his Apostles, who---because of their ministry in the Church of Christ---continue the presence of Christ on earth."
     I see. From a self-contradictory explanation of catholicism as exclusive to Catholics (contradictory because while claiming he was not speaking of Catholicism as a denomination Father V- was at the same time equating catholicism with loyalty to Catholicism, in which case JC was right in Facebook-liking Father V-, for it would seem that Father V- does not include inclusivism as part of his "catholic" context), Father V- now moves to a second stage, that of equating Luther's hatred for Pope Leo X with a hatred for Jesus, as if Pope Leo X's sins and Jesus' virtue were/are one.
     Father V- was not done.
     He continued: "There is no need to be polemical here, by the way, Jojo Soria . . . what I'm trying to express is, that being a Christian necessarily means that you have to accept all of the teachings and commandments of the Lord, whether they are in accord with one's taste or not. This in Greek and in English amounts to being---what it means to be---"katholikos" or catholic. . . ."
     "@Father V-:" I wrote, "If there's no need to be polemical, then why have you and I become polemical? Was it perhaps because there was a need for it? Where did that need come from? Could it be that the polemics just grew from nowhere? If it did, then do you mean that when I write I'm being needlessly polemical, but when you write you're not being polemical but yet need to be for my enlightenment? If that is your approach, I'd fully understand the consistency."
     "Hahaha," my Facebook friend J2 butted in at this point. "Polemics," she wrote, "all but polemics."
     I wasn't exactly sure whether J2 was referencing Father V-'s polemics, my polemics, both our polemics, or the entire humanity's polemics, so I just Facebook-liked what she wrote, since it looked polemical in itself. :)
     "No," Father V- instantly wrote, "I'm just explaining things from my end. Honestly, I had no intention of being polemical. In fact, aside from the fact that I just wanted to share my view, I got interested in the topic, since expressing it here also enlightened things up for me. As a student of history I'm beginning to see that there's more than meets the eye with the term 'catholic', that its being fundamentally synonymous with 'Christian' was penned even long before the Reform; it goes way back to sources of the Christian faith."
     I Facebook-liked this.
     "Anyway," Father V- continued, "if it seems to you that we're being polemical to each other, then this won't serve us any good . . . aside from the fact that I was just trying to give reason to anyone who calls me, to give an account for the hope that is in me (cfr. 1Peter 3:15), I was beginning to see it as a stimulating conversation, both based on reason and on faith, which always need to go hand in hand in the search for the Truth that liberates. Anyway, frankly I got something from this. . . . Peace :-)"
     I Facebook-liked this.
     "Pacem in terris," I wrote, "as Pope John XXIII would have it. :)"
     Father V- Facebook-liked this. JC didn't.
     Well, not everyone among Roman Catholics ever liked what John XXIII and his Second Vatican Council tried to introduce ("to restore unity among all Christians, including seeking pardon for Catholic contributions to separation"; "to start a dialogue with the contemporary world"). Not everyone in the Church likes the idea of reconciling or breaking bread with Protestants and the Orthodox churches, much less with other religions which Pope Benedict XVI controversially is trying to realize today in spite of his conservatism. Pope Paul VI, who would continue John XXIII's mission, was another Vatican liberal, but not everyone heeded his apology for Pope Gregory's having turned Mary Magdalen into a prostitute via a simple sermon, if Catholics today are even aware that that apology and a series of revisions concerning Mary Magdalen ever happened. Not everyone in the Church liked John Paul I too, who didn't last long in the papacy. And John Paul II, who voted against a lot of tracts in John XXIII's Second Vatican Council, is probably the most loved Pope in the Roman church today, partly perhaps for his having continued facets of John XXIII's efforts, as in the area of trying to reconcile with the Jews and other Christian sects. Pope Benedict XVI, a close confidant of John Paul II, seems to want to continue John Paul II's efforts to extend just facets of the Second Vatican Council tracts---specifically that one seeking a dialogue with other religions. . . .
     But if Popes could marry, if Pope Gregory VII hadn't required clerical celibacy, then John XXIII would probably have been the sort of Pope who wouldn't mind marrying a Protestant. And I don't think that would be because his religious beliefs were shallow or that he was a syncretist. He was, rather, the one most open to differences, the one with an open ear.
     In short, he was the first to respect the various catholicisms (universalisms), in effect fulfilling the embrace of the catholic doctrine of inclusivism. He was the Vatican's Stephen Hawking, who might have theorized that there is no one universe, but universes which finally are all the same, wherein hypertravel through cosmic wormholes can be done. He was the Vatican's company merger guru.

NOW, what has all this got to do with Shamcey Supsup and her formerly-Catholic boyfriend?
     Well, picture that scene again when Hollywood actress and contest-appointed judge Vivica A. Fox asked Supsup her question. Then, picture that moment when she answered the question. Now, put her boyfriend in her place, in a sort of scene from a Mr. Universe pageant, with him being asked the same question. His answer, of course, would be something like "I already did."
     If Supsup can embrace her boyfriend's secular heroism or sacrifice at the same time that she would preach an adherence to religious loyalism among females, we could surmise that Supsup is either sexist and another religious bigot who considers other religions as crap (Roman Catholicism perhaps as anti-Christian instead of Christian for putting Church laws above Christ's laws, according to some denominations), or . . . she believes there is no one Universe but a bundle of valid universes that could access one another in mental hypertravels via physical wormholes of acceptance. Matter turns into anti-matter and becomes matter again in some other universe, then vice versa, all perfectly acceptable. Nothing is illusion anymore, everything is embraceable. So that by answering her question at the pageant with what she had or what she could come up with, she was also recognizing that stupid questions are really only stupid situations, that easy questions are really only easy situations, and that the Miss Universe is really just a construction of various beauty queen claims to various valid universals. Remember, the first requisite of beauty pageants is congeniality, not basketball-like adversity. Its objective heaven includes yacht parties. So, therefore, you just tell people what they'd want to hear and save them the trouble of religious faux-universalist noise.
     That quick choice I can understand. Even Facebook-like. [END]

Photo of Shamcey Supsup borrowed from REUTERS/Nacho Doce as used at

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why Are We Writers Shallow?: A Voltairean Exploration

My friends' Facebook walls have been calling everybody's attention to F. Sionil Jose's quoting of a well-loved former senator in his latest column essay on titled "Why we are shallow". Okay, the essay has my attention, and now---having nothing better to do---I'd like to offer my own conjectures regarding what's behind all this rampant shallowness Jose is talking about.
     But first things first. The idea of Filipino shallowness that visited the novelist-columnist came from a friend of his from another Asian country, an idea which initially floored him. Then, recently while watching a presentation of Asian dances with former Senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani, Jose observed that there was but grudging applause from the audience for the stylized movements of a stately Japanese dance while a near-standing ovation was accorded to the energetic jumping in the Filipino-cum-Vietnamese tinikling. Jose said anyone can learn the tinikling in 10 minutes, and Senator Shahani was supposed to have asked, "Why are we so shallow?"

Well, let me see, we have been shallow for centuries.
     It was probably one of the things the Japanese hated us for, the reason perhaps why they treated us and our women like the Chinese during World War II, because we couldn't understand their dances which they didn't have the time to elucidate on for our modest collective comprehension. Meanwhile, our long-standing enthusiasm for the tinikling only demonstrated this alleged shallowness, because---as Senator Shahani would know---we as audiences often approach the dance with merely the eye of tourists, laughing and clapping only at the dancers' meager feat of avoiding the bamboos. Senator Shahani, being a Sorbonne University Doctor in Philosophy in Comparative Literature, would know that there is more to the dance than what my favorite cooking television personality could drunkenly and metaphysically say about it in the Vietnam episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations Season One. There is definitely something about the rich presence of thick bamboos in this feasting dance, as well as about the allusion to the tikling bird of the rallidae species and the tikling farm traps made of bamboo, the erotic and taxing accelerando rhythm in the fourth quarter of the dance, its relation to Philippine martial arts and tribal war dances, its possible role in Leyte among Bankaw's people prior to the Bankaw Revolt. However, we are not all trained to be dance historians, much less as semioticians, to ever get---or want---anything more than the fun we're already getting from the tinikling at face value. In fact, we didn't all have that privilege of getting to know anything about our own dances, much less the Odori, and so we remain shallow.
     As Jose's foreign friend would say, this shallowness is manifest even in our major papers. I'd read the Philippine Star, for instance, and what would I get? Apart from F. Sionil Jose's column, there's practically nothing to read in there except the comic strips, the classifieds for preferably female applicants, and the boring crosswords and sudokus. It's a total waste of recycled paper. Another Star columnist, the poet and novelist Alfred Yuson, was probably wryly acknowledging this shallowness in his newspaper after he was indirectly asked for his opinion about Jose's column and assumptions: "Shallow shallow me. Shallow me wherever you may be... tra-la-la...," he said.

Our universities and colleges are all to blame for this epidemic of shallowness.
     Instead of putting much emphasis on the culture of Late Antiquity, they spend too much time teaching our preppies everything about the binary structures of HTTP cookies used to hack the CIA headquarters or eBay with, or the way Florence Nightingale would assist a doctor performing a burn debridement or escharotomy, which all totally mean nothing to either Heraclius or Phocas. Look at the Hindus, for instance, even while often high on bhang lassi their continuity with their past would be retained through the centuries, so that even today you can see sacred cows still plowing their own dung on the cobblestones of Jaisalmer Fort. And the Buddhists of Thailand---who up to today can perform sacrifices of not dirtying one's soul with the mud of modern economics, relying solely for their food on the age-old charity of a modern-day profiteer with a store. So why, oh why, don't our universities and colleges bring back all that Greek that up to now is being studied in Greece, or all that Latin that up to now is still being studied at Pontificio Seminario Vaticano, for God's sake?
     The classics teach us wisdom. The Web teaches us nothing but wiki-knowledges about protons and American Idol winners. Thus the arrogance of TV personalities who have been fed these wiki-knowledges by their scriptwriters, mistaking these bits for wisdom. The classics' wisdom lead us to Western culture and all its metanarratives of superiority over tribal wisdom, which we---if we could only immerse ourselves in these holy waters---could in fact use to build our own counter-reifications.
     This failure of ours to appropriate the wisdom of Western culture has in fact led us to a level of ignorant arrogance, a broadcaster's type of arrogance, that is unable to see the role each of us is playing in the system, be it the system of government or the system of citizenship. All we can do now, therefore, is lean on the luxury of slogans and abstractions and sweeping views that are averse to the devils in the details. Thus the vicious cycle of crab-criticalities that are, being crab-criticalities, by themselves averse to criticalities. We thus end up hurling invectives at each other, calling each other stupid and ignorant and shallow, while each is without a desire for the hard task of discoursing further on rococo details of qualifying truth (the way either Michelangelo or Michel Foucault would feel happy about) regarding the fisherman's son's inability to comprehend the basics of TESDA's electrician's course or his ability to call Mike Enriquez's confused conservative or progressivist politics crap.
     We have chosen to be Westernized and yet not Westernized enough. Our embrace of democracy fails Karl Popper's dictum of owning likewise the responsibility of accepting "obsolescence" when it comes in an open society. We hold on to our animist faith concerning the divinity of our persons assigned seats of authority, be it as government authorities or culture authorities, and own nothing but a confirmation bias in favor of our ability to call anyone and everyone shallow. Western culture, if only we studied it well, would have taught us the rigors of rationalism, so that instead of sweeping conclusions regarding ourselves we could slowly tackle each man's behavior the way Spinoza tackled God, as an individual expression in a dynamic equation. Because of this inability, we have been reduced to behave like writers pretending to be sociologists, with nothing but the rhetoric of fallacies that we mistake for social science. We are thus rendered shallow---unable to see who we are, those mere writers, and the limits to what we can do.
     And if only we had Romanized ourselves well, the way South Korea has Americanized itself well, we would have armed ourselves with the capacity to hurl crockery at the quackery of Restorationist and evangelical voices on TV. If we had been Romanized enough, we would see---beyond Latin-American liberation theology---the superiority of Vatican to these discards of Calvinism and the Great Awakening. Look at South Korea, its perfect Americanization has shaped the prosperity theology of the Yoido Full Gospel Church. Meanwhile, our Catholicism is not as strong as the death threats of an Opus Dei follower on the artist Mideo Cruz in our supposedly open-ended society.

Thus, we are rendered shallow.
     And so we fail to see the shallowness of media as product of the subconscious plan of the local Illuminati to keep the status quo, wherein education remains the privilege of the post-Gomburza children of former caciques and public education is the shame hurled on the laps of Jesus' working class.
     We are rendered shallow. We can't use our pens to expose the real identities of the jokers on morning radio who are on a secret mission to destroy the seeds of social liberalism in the service of network-owning bosses with holding companies with interests in the fuits of conservative elitism.
     We are now eternally shallow. We can only choose to ignore the fact that all that entertainment fodder is what goes on in the drawing boards of corporate profiteering and, in surrender, we proceed to ourselves write shallow exegeses about our own shallowness, contributing in effect to the perpetuation of such profit-motivated mass dumbing.
     We: you, with me, are forever shallow. So we can only spit on our neighbors who can't understand our essays in English. We are totally shallow. We can only complain about their Tagalog-based intellectual incapacities deriving from our missionary and patronizing teaching-in-English failures. We are shallow. We can only ignore the fact that we are not Belgium divided into a French-speaking territory and a Dutch-speaking territory but Belgium divided into several languages inside our every territory and spot. We are shallow. We can only close our ears to the fact that linguistic differences are often also class differences. We are shallow. We can only close our eyes to the reality that the lower class aspires to become the middle class and upper class, and the upper middle class and upper class aspire to become Americans and Europeans.
     We are, safe to say now, shallow, and so choose not to write about the cost of sending our kids to schools that teach how to read, about the price of books, the language of books, the stupid marketing and distribution of books, the inaccessibility of books, the technological variations on the concept book.
     We are shallow. We continue to debate on the virtue of books, hoping to find enlightenment for everyone, while the sidewalk downstairs aims for the depths of our garbage, deeply hoping to find bread. [END]

UPDATE:On September 26, 2011, Jose uploaded a new column piece titled "A reply to you out there who disagree with me": click here to read.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Moving On, In Hindsight, and Predicting the Future of Art

1. Moving forward, ano ba dapat ang artist?

IN TV host and social critic Lourd de Veyra's show on AksyonTV called Word of the Lourd, the host tackled the recent brouhaha over an installation art displayed at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, a brouhaha instigated by the media and taken up mainly by devotees of the Roman Catholic faith. My distant cousin Lourd, whom I constantly applaud with much aplomb on this his show, implied a preference for "moving on," however, which caught my questioning attention. He intimated that the country has bigger problems to tackle than this, this being an issue in art, that field far removed from the concerns of mainstream society. Here's that video:

     I do not mean to judge or make assumptions about my cousin's stance or stand on the issue itself, pero "Let's move on" ang operative formula na ina-apply ng marami nating kababayan sa mga isyung hindi natin nareresolba/mareresolba o di kaya ayaw nating resolbahin.
     Sinasabi ko ito dahil, sa isang perspektibo, may mga facet ng isyu akong nakikita kung saan puwede kang mag-apply ng resolusyon. Hindi rin ako sang-ayon na nagkakamali ang media tuwing tinutuligsa o tsinitsismis nito ang "maliliit" na bagay na hindi pinapansin ng masa, dahil ang mga journalists, tulad ng mga tsismoso, ay may kani-kanyang political agenda o socio-educational mission base sa kanilang mga kultura at bias, at ang mga agenda o misyon o bias na ito ay makikita mo kahit sa maliliit na bagay na yaon.
     Off the bat, isipin natin ang isang facet nitong malaki o maliit na isyu na 'to. Ang tanong: ang exhibition bang ito ay magiging malaking isyu ng journalismo at intelligentsia tungkol sa estado kung ito ay hindi state-sponsored art o kung hindi man ay art na dinisplay sa isang state-sponsored venue, ang CCP? Kung ito'y dinisplay sa Ayala Museum, mag-rarally lamang ang mga deboto laban sa artist, sa curator, at sa mga Ayalas, di ba, at ang mga Ayalas at Zobels lamang ang magiging isyu. Wala nang pagreresign-in na mga otoridad ng CCP.
     Sang-ayon ako na maraming malalaking problema ang naungkat ng exhibition. Pero isa rin do'n ang problema ng attitude ng estado towards institutionalized religion. Isa rin do'n ang problema ng pagdedesisyun nito sa kung saan dapat tinatapon ang pera ng bayan at sa kung saan hindi dapat. Panahon na na ang isang liberal na gobyerno ay magsabi na ang pera ng estado ay hindi dapat nakikialam sa paggawa ng art, sa dahilang ito'y nag-aaksaya lamang ng pera ng bayan sa pinaborang artists. Panahon na rin na ang artist ay hindi maging artist na boses ng estado o isang rehimen/administrasyon kundi artist ng sarili niyang pagkatao bilang indibidwal o miyembro ng isang niche ng lipunan.
     As a corollary argument, kung censorship din lang ang pag-uusapan, may karapatang i-censor ng estado ang anumang art na pinagawa ng pera nito. Even after the fact of the artmaking.

OO NGA. Bumisita si dating First Lady Imelda Marcos, ang asawa ng dating diktador na si Ferdinand Marcos, sa CCP exhibition, at ang ngayo'y isa nang Representative ng House of Representatives ay naglabas ng kanyang pagkamuhi sa nasabing installation project.
     Pero, in relation to Imelda's oft-quoted slogan "the true, the good and the beautiful," coming as it seems from the perspective of a royalist ideology, tingnan naman natin ang sarili nating mga konsepto ng truth, goodness at beauty from our own respective contending ideologies. I-iimpose din ba natin ang atin sa bayan? Sasabihin din ba natin sa tao na magbayad sila ng buwis para masustentuhan nila ang mga art at artists na may bersyon ng ating truth, ng ating goodness, ng ating beauty ayon sa ating ideology? Kung oo ang sagot natin, ano ngayon ang pinagkaiba natin kay Imelda?
     Bilang isang social liberal at isa ring kritiko ng ilang Roman Catholic policies at doctrines, dapat akong magdiwang sa tapang ng artist na si Mideo Cruz at ng mga art sponsors niya (curator, etc.). Subalit ayokong gawin ang ginagawa sa akin ng mga kalaban ko sa argumento (mula sa fundamentalismo ng institutionalized religion)---ang magdiwang tuwing nasasagot ako habang nakasandal sa poder ng ideloyohiya o teyolohiya na kumakalinga sa kanila kahit alam kong dapat wala ang poder na iyon sa likod nila habang tumatakbo ang demokratikong argumentasyon. In short, wala silang threats na "patawarin ka sana ng Diyos" o "gabaan ka sana" na maririnig sa akin mula sa aking secular na punto de vista. At bakit ko nasabi ito? Dahil sa side naman ni Cruz, poder ng state art ang sinasandalan niya, at---sa pag-aming may karapatang masaktan ang relihiyon---ayokong sumandal sa poder ng sekyularismong iyon na kasalukuyang pinamamahalaan ng isang diumano'y social liberal na gobyerno. Dahil forever bang pag-aagawan ng mga ideologies o theologies ang CCP at National Commission for Culture and the Arts? O, in the US' case, forever bang pag-aagawan ang National Endowment for the Arts ng mga liberals, religious conservatives at Tea Party-ites? Ano kaya kung itumba na lang natin ang mga pinag-aagawan na 'to? Kung tayo, bilang mga social liberals (o Christian o atheist progressivists man) ay nakikiagaw kay Imelda, ang stalwart ng Philippijne royalist ideology, wala tayong pinagkaiba sa kanya. Pare-pareho tayong gustong magdikta ng ating malamang estetiko sa buong bansa.
     Dahil bagamat ako ay isang social liberal, alam ko rin na ang liberals ay hindi ang buong bayan. Kung ang ating asta ngayon ay, "kaming mga liberal ang hari ngayon, hawak namin ang CCP ngayon, kami ang masusunod, art namin ang masusunod," aba, huwag tayong magrereklamo kung sa mga darating na taon na si Bongbong Marcos naman ang presidente, ay sabihin niyang "o, mga royalist na naman ang may hawak ng CCP ha, art naman namin ang masusunod. Back off kayo." (This is assuming, of course, that Bongbong Marcos won't surprise us with a future sudden reconfiguration of his person from being a defender of his father's record to being a real champion of the masses and the country's coffers' integrity and strength, should that be possible.)
     "Raise the banner of liberalism in order to attack it, advance on fanaticism, and ask people to become Pilosopong Tasyo. LOL," the novelist and activist Ninotchka Rosca joked on Facebook.
     I'm okay with that. The eternal struggle of raising self-critiquing banners is no big deal for me. But even hundreds of years of war with un-self-critical fanatics might also be fine with me. A state of civil war might be acceptable to me, if that's what would wake us up to the virtue of democratic tolerance. Still and all, while debate is still possible, even if I were the lucky type who often gets my way, I'd probably still be against state sponsorship of the arts and the arts profession, for state sponsorship is at the very heart of the Mideo Cruz piece. On this issue, at least, I'm one with Newt Gingrich. LOL.
     But yet, also be aware that many US Republicans don't exactly want the NEA abolished. They just want it governed by conservatives who would put up evangelical art. If they can have it their way, they won't want to get rid of state sponsorship of the arts and the arts profession. They won't be one with Newt Gingrich.
     At sa debate tungkol sa piece ni Cruz, sa bandang akin lang naman, kung may poder man ang secularism na gusto kong sandalan sa anumang argumento tungkol dito, ito ay hindi sa pagdikta nito ng sekyularismo bilang haven ng panginginsulto sa relihiyon kundi sa pagdikta nito ng prinsipyo ng demokrasya na nagbibigay ng kalayaan kanino man na manginsulto kanino man

2. In hindsight, what is art, who is it for, at ano ang matalinong art?

STRANGE THAT in novelist F. Sionil Jose's column titled Hindsight, he would have had the opportunity to get a "perfect view in hindsight" (two weeks after the controversial CCP exhibition opened) and yet came up with nothing original, nothing different from what the protesters against the exhibition had to say (were continuing to say). In short, it was as if Jose was out with it merely to announce on which side he was, and taking the case of the protesters instead of the exhibition's supporters' side (or the supporters-of-the-exhibition's-rights' side), at least in the query area of whether the exhibited installation art was art or not. He clearly voiced his support for the protesters through the title of his column article, "The CCP Jesus Christ exhibit: It ain't art".
     Ahem. Okey. Mga kaibigan, naalala ko tuloy.
     Isang araw kasi noon, nagpatugtog ang kaibigan kong FM radio deejay ng Pearl Jam grunge sa radyo nila, kaya tanong ng station manager niya, "ba't yan ang pinapatugtog mo? Mawawalan tayo ng listeners nyan." What did my friend do? Did what was expected of him, played the '70s folk-rock band America's "A Horse with No Name" followed by James Taylor's "Your Smiling Face." "Yan ang rock," sabi ng station manager. Pagdating ng dapithapon, nag-inuman kami ng kaibigan ko at buong gabi naming tinalakay ang definition ng rock music. Napunta kami sa new wave music, kung saan chinallenge ang idea ng pagka-rock nang walang electric guitar, at sa kung saan-saang dako pa ng genre-fication. Kinaumagahan, nung ako'y magising sa aking hangover, isa lang ang na-realize ko. May isang milyong definition ng rock music. Pero nakatulog lang uli ako, at doon naman sa dako ng aking paglalakbay habang tulog, napaniginipan ko si Prof. John Lennon na minumura ang estudyanteng si Kurt Cobain. Sabi niya, "ano ba yang pinaggagagawa mo, Cobain? Pakinggan mo ang 'Woman' ko. Ganyan gumawa ng kanta, okey?" . . . Uhm, pa'no ba alisin ang hangover? Uminom na uli ng isa pang bote pagkatapos sumuka? Parang ganon nga yata. Uh, you were saying?
     Where was I? Ano bang argument pa ang sasabihin ko sana? Oh, yes. Sabi ng isang Facebook friend of a friend, "Unfortunately, the intolerant side won't even let you finish a sentence by instantly pushing the usual 'shut up', 'bobo', 'bastos', or, worse, the 'gaba-an' threat as well as death threats." Tuloy ng kaibigan ng kaibigan ko, "It baffles me how anyone can just throw the word 'bobo' around when you need several intelligence tests to accurately come up with a conclusion. Even then you need to establish if these tests are culture-fair pa, and then there's EQ vs IQ . . . "
     Where was I? Oh, yes. Sa bus nung isang gabi, sumakay ang isang barkada ng mga estudyanteng high school. Ang lalakas ng boses! Sabi ng isa, "si ma'am yun." "Gago, hindi si ma'am yun," sabi naman nung isa. "Si ma'am yun, bobo." "Ulol, kitang-kita ko ng mga mata ko, gago ka ba?" "Tarantado ka," sabi ng isa, sabay batok sa kaibigan habang sila'y nagtatawanan, "hindi ako gago, 'no. Alam ko ang hitsura ni ma'am, tanga ka pala e." . . . Mahabang kuwento 'to, pero sa madaling salita, dumating din sila sa kanilang paroroonan, silang maiingay na mga gago, at wala namang nagalisan o nasabunutan ng buhok. Buti pa ang mga high school, sabi ko sa sarili ko, pag gumagamit ng mga salita galing sa social science, walang intolerance. Lahat ng "bobo," "gago" at "tanga" ay kaibigan.
     But, to be fair, Jose never used the word "stupid." Instead, he only used the words "immature," "juvenile," "ridiculous," and phrases like "lack imagination," "don't think hard enough," among other implied hellfire of judgmental language.
     Hanggang dito na lang ba ang usaping ito? Sa side ni Jose o ng kanyang kinikilingan ay ang truth o artistic truth, at ang kabilang side ay ang kabobohan? The name of the Truth, the Good, the Beautiful . . . Amin?
     Ang sinasabi pa ni Jose, ang artwork installation art daw dito sa exhibition in question ay copied art, lacking in imagination or originality. A gimmick, then! And should go back to the drawing board.
     Where was I? Oh, yes. Isang gabi, nag-daydream ako na isa akong critic na kelangan me sulatin. Di ko alam saan ako magsisimula. Ah, biglang sabi ng epiphany area ng aking utak, may titirahin akong mga derivative art. Ewan ko kung ano ang nangyari, pero napunta ang panaginip ko sa pinagsasasakmal ko ang isang derivative art sa di ko alam na dahilan. Oo, hindi ko alam ang dahilan. Hindi ko alam. Ang alam ko lang, wala akong sinabi sa sangkaterbang iba pang derivative art, o sa sarili kong derivative art. Para akong tambay sa kanto na may nakursunadahang iisa lamang, at di ko alam ang dahilan.
     Now, it may be that no one's awaiting my opinion on this, but let me just clarify to those who have stumbled into this that, in contrast to Mr. Jose's unclarified position, I'm neither on the side of the Church of Caiaphas (which is what I've come to call the Catholic Church authorities' recent temple of corrupt behavior under Gloria Arroyo's previous government) nor on the side of the sons of Christian aniconism. I'm just a man on a bus petting a historical hangover.

PARDON MY attempts at wit. Wit is a 1995 play and 2001 movie about cancer.
     I mean, God forbid the Gabâ (instant or imminent bad karma). Or death threats. And so I say to you, to Christians like myself (cafeteria Christian though I am) there ought to be no death, no darkness, no end to the Christian perspective. And yet we put out with holy water the fire we stoke for Joans of Arc? Nakaka-puzzle ang death threats (o ang mga tipong death sentences ng Opus Dei sa mga nobela ni Dan Brown hahaha), dahil dapat hindi parusa ang sickness o death sa Christian philosophy. Ito kaya ay patunay lamang na maraming Christian gurus kuno ang walang pakialam sa mga turo ng kanilang libro at hero?
     "Sana gaba-an kayo," sigaw ng mga deboto, gayung sabi ng kanilang hero, "love your enemies." Tama nga naman si Hero. Di ba't ang iprinopose niya noong thesis ay ang anti-thesis sa Ancient Roman philosophy of Might? Sabi ni Hero, hindi Might for Might, kundi Love ang magpapatumba sa kaharian ng Tiyuhin ni Caligula.
     Pero tila mali ang metaphor natin dahil lalabas dito na ang iilang iconoclasm ngayon ay gawa ng mga pagano at "Romano" ng ating panahon. Di ba't si Hero mismo ay ang iconoclast ng Judaismo ng kanyang panahon? "Wala akong pakialam sa sinasamba nyong Templo ng kabuktutan," tila sabi niya noon, "itutumba ko yan at papalitan ko sa loob ng tatlong araw."
     Dapat na nga yatang tumbahin ang CCP ng "Caiaphas-approved art lamang ang puwede at ipapako sa krus ng media ang susuway." Itayo muli ang "templo ng tao at ng puso" na hindi gawa ni Imelda kundi ng bawat simpleng bato sa kanto! At dapat hindi ang The Rock ang punong-kritiko!

PARDON MY attempts at wit. Dahil sasabihin lang ng mga deboto, aha! ang witty sa sineng Wit ni Mike Nichols ay namatay sa cancer, buti nga. Gabâ. Ang isa pang friend of a friend na nag-witty mimic sa exhibition art na pinag-uusapan natin dito ay biglang na-ospital dahil sa isang pamamaga sa mukha. Isang supporter ng exhibiting artist in question ang isinugod sa ospital ang anak. Well, let me say this. Lahat ng tao---may sabihin man laban sa Simbahan o wala---ay nagkakasakit o namamatay. Kaya nagtataka ako kung bakit itunuturing na Gabâ ang sickness at death, lalong-lalo na ng mga deboto na dapat ay unang nakaaalala sa mga turo ng kanilang martir na nagpakamatay sa mga pahina ng Bagong Testamento.
     Should this attitude towards Gabâ or retribution among the Church's faithful to be viewed as a koan cum puzzling paradox, Christianity's history being replete---as I said---with a constant involving the burning of its own people whom it would later pronounce as its saints? Jesus of Nazareth himself, let me repeat, was an iconoclast at Caiaphas' Church.

PARDON THE depth of my subtext. My bad. History makes bad ad copy. Unless, of course, its strategy is to provoke questions. And my friend, the veteran journalist-activist Sylvia Mayuga, says there's good news about the CCP. That "things are changing as we speak; issues are being clarified, starting with ourselves." Well, remains to be seen in what direction of defining goodness it has chosen to move towards. For, putting aside my usual contention against the state's role in supporting art-making activities beyond museums and libraries maintenance, I could cite an example of an ill-advised direction.
     A friend of Mayuga's echoed and reiterated lines of argument coming from those whose moral standpoint have been offended by the art in question.
     "Freedom is not absolute . . . carries with it a sense of responsibility," says one recurring line. This is true, and that is the reason why we have laws, statesmen, legislators and lawyers on the one hand and warlords and assassins on the other. The "one hand" as well as "the other" provide society with the parameters, the "one hand" with the letter and/or wisdom of the law and the state, the "other hand" with violent/death threats and/or their quick implementation.
     And, true, the artist must have a sense of responsibility. But firstly a responsibility to himself and his cause, be it the cause of evangelical art, Marian art, punk art, bad art, or whatever. Restraint must be, but in fact is, part and parcel of the process of art-making itself wherein decisions of what to include and what not to include are a constant. But the question now is: who should nudge an artist's propensity to allow excess or shyness, himself or the state? Who shall have the post of The Measurer of excess or non-excess? Him? Me? You? Your mother? F. Sionil Jose? The Pope? The majority? The minority? The individual? Those are the questions.
     "Junk art is no art," true. Unless your art is "junk art" (subgenre of "found art"), which---after the conscious self-labeling or admission of the label---might qualify an art genre category assignation unto itself, and thus to be read according to this genre's elements and terms. It escapes Jose that in the same way the sonnet is its own art enjoyed differently from the way one enjoys the art of the epic poem, so installation art is its own niche art and language different from the artistic language of craft-driven photorealist painting. So, abstract expressionism and minimalist art are their own painting genres with concerns and ironies different from the concerns and ironies of a, say, religious hyper-realist work. This, in the same way that noise rock is an artistic musical genre with elements and a thesis separate from and independent of the standards and thesis of easy-listening Bing Crosby. So, therefore, the question now is: Who shall be appointed to the post of being the measurer of "artful"-ness and "artless"-ness among the different arts and their approaches to the enjoyable, their artistic languages, their theme treatment concerns, their ironies, their elements that comprise their language, their standards? Critics? Artists themselves, as their own best critics? Me? You? Your mother? F. Sionil Jose of PEN International? The Pope? Catholics? The Opus Dei? Protestants? Gnostics? Agnostics? Aniconists? Engineers? Psychiatrists? Haute cuisine chefs? Manicurists? Those are the questions.
     "Ethos" and "merit" were words waved by Mayuga's friend. But these concepts shall forever be debated on the surface of the earth as well as in the bunkers, and liberals and conservatives (in society and in art) shall forever be at each other's throat over these. Bearing this in mind, one can now go out into the day and clearly decide on his responsibilities---responsibilities to his faith, to his politics, or to his art.
     Well, okay, some others would say responsibility to the state, to the majority, or to his death-threatened family, but I would leave that to the bearer of his own mind who, in the end, will have to make up his own mind, . . . whether he decides on his responsibilities at the point of a gun or the point of resolving an artistic or thematic point.

I HAVE always been of the belief that free society has encumbered the individual with responsibilities that go with his freedom. The individual has to exercise his sense of measure in his quest for survival within the laissez-faire traffic of thoughts and decisions and actions in the social environment consisting too of others' freedoms. And so, in this society, responsibility readily resides in the individual. However, the state, for as long as it subscribes to the tenets of democracy that seek to protect the freedom of the individual, would have enacted laws that affirm as well as protect the equal freedoms of each one. Thus, freedom of expression, thus freedom of religion, and so on and so forth. Ideally in a free society, a society such as what the United States' laws and many European countries' laws seek to maintain, the state only interferes when an exercise of one's freedom hinders another's. For instance, one may deem it his right to cross any part of the highway at any time of the day, which may in turn hinder vehicle owners' right to a free-flowing highway devoid of potential human roadkill. The state would, and often does, interfere in such simple problematiques. However, when one spits on the name of a religion or a religious practice without hindering that religion from exercising its freedom to exist, it should be a no-brainer that the state cannot and must not interfere. Thus, the UK did not find it difficult to say that Salman Rushdie, who many Moslems deemed insulting, had the right to insult, even as the state did not share his "insult" (many mosques are allowed to exist in England).
     And so, now, we go to a suggestion to put up authority bodies akin to the Union of Soviet Writers passing judgment on the oppressive works of the Alexander Solzhenitsyns of our place and time. Regulation of artistic practice is being peddled as an attractive notion. Does this notion negate the ideal of a free society? I believe it does.
     True, when I agreed above that individual freedom does have its responsibilities, I did not only mean to allude to such Karl Popperian dictums on an open society as the individual's duty to be aggressive with his opinions while always on the ready to accept his obsolescence, I also meant to allude to the individual's sense of measure, restraint, and other social considerations. This sense may include such choices as civility, giving the other space to save face, avoiding provoking emotional limits, and so on. But in no way was I implying that I'd be in on the idea of forming authority bodies to police individual freedom. Thus my question, "who will decide for the individual, your mother?"
     The Union of Soviet Writers was one such "collegial body" as those being suggested for the Philippine democratic environment. It was appointed by the Soviet state to police individual writers. But it was perfectly understandable for the Soviet Union to come up with that, because the then-Union's concept of democracy was not intended for the individual but only for the collective. I, as a poet and fiction writer and blogging critic as well as a citizen of this republic, spit on the idea of any Philippine collective or committee deciding for the individual. Certainly we have fellow artists and fellow citizens as well as critics and self-appointed critics on blogs who have been given by the state their own freedom to denounce and malign an artist, but the denounced artist's own rights cannot be trampled on by their own respective freedoms.

OH YES, certainly there is that other option in a free society that is also mentioned as an ultimate course of action for those who've been offended by the CCP exhibition. Yes, indeed, there is always that option for legislators to turn the state into freer atmospheres or less free atmospheres.
     In the United States, for instance, some Republicans have been demanding that the state sponsor evangelical prayers in public schools as well as the putting up of statues of stalwart evangelical leaders of the pioneering era in public school campuses. That is certainly going in the direction of more freedom for evangelical devotees at the expense of Moslems, Catholics, Jews, Lutherans, and so on, who are themselves paying their taxes to the state. Do states do this kind of stuff at all? Yes, they do this all the time. And that is why there is always a see-saw of leaderships in the history of democracies, also because of citizens' demand for either more freedom or less freedom for others as time progresses or regresses. In our own state and time, for instance, we do not allow the freedom of the pornographer to exercise pornography, at least on paper. We do not recognize homosexuals' right of access to civil marriage. But at the same time, we have other freedoms that other democratic states don't have. Hundreds of barangay governments allow dog owners to turn our streets into canine toilets. Local peanut butter manufacturers are not policed by aflatoxin level guidelines. Philippine companies are allowed to discriminate against jobseekers by reason of their sex, religion or age.
     And so it is up to us as a nation of citizens, either by plurality voting perhaps or by the power of reason and mutual respect as per the decision of our representative democracy, to decide whether we want more freedom or less freedom in certain areas of our social existence and co-existences. Many do demand more "order," as some of those anti-CCP exhibition guys would put it, while many others also demand more freedom, recognizing perhaps that there is (or can be) order in the plurality of voices in our land. While some of the latter would allow that they might consider the requirements of civility in criticality, others are firm in their conviction that even such exercises as radical aniconism, iconoclasm and even downright artistic insults in the practice of an art have a place in an ideal democracy.
     Again, it is up to us as free individuals cum collectives of a free nation and open society to decide now whether we wish to diminish or expand our neighbor's roster of freedoms. And ponder, likewise, the consequences of any reduction or regulation both on them and ourselves.

NOW, CERTAINLY I could not avoid mentioning above the notion of violence and death threats resorted to as options by certain individuals in our society. For the very reason that THESE WERE RESORTED TO in the case of Mideo Cruz by certain apologists, I believe, of the Roman Catholic Church. Some say these threats were an Opus Dei crusade's signature, others say these were merely prank calls by Cruz's personal enemies. Whatever they were, they were there.
     And to assume---in Cruz's defense---that these external dynamics (death threats, and so on) are not part of the art is precisely to go back to the New Criticism belief in the integrity of the artwork ("what pertains only to the artwork") independent of the social space the artwork inhabits or invades. Remember that this social space ultimately owns the artwork as per this space's interpreters' majority take on the art. And while this independence of the art object is also called forth---by those denouncing Cruz's art---for a judgment of the artist qua artist, as if to claim they are merely judging the art as art (its integral elements) so to qualify its failure as art, those guys also clearly contradict themselves by calling in such writings as a George Steiner essay on literature, society and the inhuman or such lines as those from Albert Camus on moderation and excess, calling these good discourses on the "reach of literature" and "(by extension, art)". Incidentally, if I remember my Camusian and Sartreian existentialism correctly, wasn't it a philosophy that tried to throw responsibility back to the individual away from the state and moral authorities? Wasn't Camus' The Fall a portrait of one such moral authority in the process of questioning his own morality?

"WHAT'S THE bottomline?" the friend of my friend asked. "If we're to establish limitations on art and its expression, why? Is it at all possible to simplify matters into pros and cons/cost-and-benefit analyses? Are our fears and concerns about not putting limits on expression valid or not?"
     "May cons siyempre, pare," sabi ko. "If you're pro-X, you're bound to hear extreme pronouncements against your stand from anti-X and pro-Y folks. But the pros of an open society outnumber the cons. No one will stop you from putting out your own pronouncements against the stand of the anti-X and pro-Y. Most important of all, while it is hard to listen to the outbursts of a position in conflict with yours, it is far harder to live in a place where we keep each other from talking."
     Let me put up this proposal, I continued. What if we follow our other friend's suggestion and start applying that on Facebook, wherein a committee will have to review all opinions bordering on insults before one can press the Enter key. You want to try that experiment? Okey ako ro'n. But we should all be ready with the consequences. There will be a struggle to occupy seats in that committee, and God knows where it might all lead. Northern Ireland? Constantinople once again?
     "What I don't get here is why these lawmakers are putting more stock in prosecuting someone who supposedly 'hurt' sensibilities, totally overlooking the fact that somebody else actually threatened his life, destroyed property, and attempted to commit arson---what if the CCP burned to a crisp because of what he did? So it's perfectly understandable for people to threaten someone's life, maybe even take his life and burn his property if 'sensibilities' are offended?"
     Yan ang problema sa batas na yan na nagsasabing di mo puwedeng insultuhin ang anumang relihiyon, habang binibigyan natin ang relihiyon ng karapatan na insultuhin ang sinumang indibidwal, sabi ko. Ang isa pang problema dyan, wala akong alam na legislator na hindi beholden sa relihiyon at sa hatak ng boto ng institutionalized religion. Kung meron man, iilan ang sasama sa kanya sa pagpanukala na ibasura ang may kiling na batas na ito?

3. Art from now on, ano ba?

WE ARE all Barthes.
     But first, my friend the painter Marcel Antonio is right, the artist has the responsibility to manage the contextualities and impending contexts of his art, even---or specially---when the artist intends a free contextualization of his imagery vis a vis a plural or potentially antagonistic society. We might recall the machinations of absurdist plays, which---while they pronounced the absurdity of existence---yet were structured in such a way as to communicate those absurdities, in essence negating absurdness by packaging absurdities in consumer-friendly tetra paks within the library of orderly categorizations. Some absurdists were aware of that contradiction.
     Yet Mideo Cruz is also right in saying he can't control the audience, taking---I'd like to think---after Roland Barthes' extremist (?) assumption that each man reads a thing differently or that a man can read a thing in various different ways at various different times. Still, Marcel might still ask Mideo, "did you intend to control the audience in the first place?"
     I know where Marcel is coming from. We might take as an example the marketing of CDs or movies. A US version of a rock star's album would be tweaked to include another song in exchange for a removed song for its UK release. A band would refuse to play a popular song of theirs in certain areas of the world for reasons sometimes only privy to their managers and promoters. A Filipino movie that premiered in LA might be retitled and resubtitled for Cannes. In short, artists or their managers do manage contexts or impending contexts. Even Mitsubishi decided to do away with the name Pajero on one of their vehicles for Spain's market, understanding that in Spain "pajero" is the slang term for a wanker.
     Still, Mideo by Barthes would be right, for managers are sometimes surprised when their tweakings result in more controversy rather than the pacific atmosphere their engineering minds expected to find.
     So, what does this Mideo Cruz affair finally give us as a final context?
     Let us consider the absence of the old New Criticism approach to the artwork as integral to itself removed from the authority of the artist. Think, for example, what might have happened had Cruz died of dengue after putting up his art project without anybody except CCP authorities knowing about this "departure." Certainly we would still be screaming for the artist's explanation, placing that absence in the context of the art, say, as manifestation of fear and guilt. Later, we may become aware of the artist's demise. We would then find ourselves recontextualizing the art with that outside "old/new" reality attached: with, say, the artist's "death as gabâ" context, for one.
     Yet others might crop up, shouting celebratory slogans, declaring Cruz a hero of aniconism or even an inspiration to the ire of Islamic terrorists (who may not read the Qur'an but) who dismiss all Christian icons as imageries of the infidel. Cruz would not be there to announce his distance from any such causes.
     Could Cruz's constant refusal to answer intent part and parcel of his art? Is he feigning ignorance in order to test the extent of the Filipino audience's ability to weigh things? Is he being a pollster-artist? We don't know.
     Whatever the artistic intent, what does this affair finally give us as its final context as it evolves in the culture and zeitgeist of our land, amidst our people's minds today?
     To me and my humble semiotics, it is finally a test on our democracy. It goes beyond mere questions of taste that say, "punk rock is just noise and Bing Crosby's is real music" or "this is bad art and Marian art is the pinot noir of Philippine artistic achievements." It asks, furthermore, questions on the role of icons in Philippine Christian worship, the role this worship plays in Philippine state laws, and the state of Philippine politics today in relation to religious hegemonies. That is to me the final achievement of Cruz's work. It could be that he didn't intend that, but like you and me, who in this debate had been interested in what the artist wanted to say?
     We are all Barthes.

NOW, WAY before Barthes was born (1915) there was Marcel's namesake, Marcel Duchamp. A urinal is supposedly a non-art, mundane boring item. Put that in a gallery, however, and it becomes poetry ("Fountain", 1917).
     Barthes proposed that the mind has its own galleries. Like Duchamp, we can pick any bad art or ugly art or tramp art and turn that into brilliant art according to the reading of our mental galleries' considerations.
     I wouldn't, for example, be surprised if Barthes announced this imagery above as illustrative of the Catholic Church's crucifixion of the penis on top of the Christ (albeit the penis is now hard as wood) in the Church's present campaign for abstention and against masturbation. The Christ, meanwhile, while used as cross is simultaneously miscast as behind all this penile crucifixion.
     Nor be surprised if Barthes is to invoke a feminist take on the image as representing institutionalized Christianity as that phallic, male-centric movement for gender mainstreaming. Which, incidentally, was what Cruz---in an online magaizne interview---actually said was what that artpiece was all about.
     But Barthes is his own Barthes, separate from the Barthes in the artist. Many of my fellow Catholic friends are a different collective-Barthes altogether, with their own take on things. Thus their declarations of wanting to take over the state and barricade the bill of rights for their rewriting, towards the reification of their metanarrative.

WHILE WE'RE on Barthes, I'd like to call attention to his The Pleasure of the Text, wherein he made an effort to demonstrate a way by which reading can escape both the clutches of the vicious Left and the bourgeois Right. His vehicle of choice? Hedonism. Further, in A Lover's Discourse, he sought to come up with rhetoric that would veer away from socially-dictated meanings. He would essentially fail in both of these efforts, however, in the same way that Mideo Cruz (assuming he's also on this same path) failed to extricate himself from social contexts in a punk-like hedonistic immersion in supposedly "socially freed" image-making.
     Still, the point is not so much in the success or failure of the effort. It is in the effort, which by itself presupposes the existence of social dictators of meaning from which one seeks to escape. The furor over the effort only braced the point of that hegemony's existence.

A FRIEND of several friends commented, "I'm getting tired of this whole Brouhaha! Couldn't people just get a life?"
     To which I said, "I wish the continuing furor over the art project (yet for exhibition elsewhere) by some Catholics and media personnel would listen to you and leave art alone to exercise its freedom to blaspheme anything and anyone. But, no, they had to help art get a boost and a new life in the popular stream by being its talent manager and designing this 'scandal'. They could've just ignored the artpieces and enjoyed Mompo wine with pesto bread and Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese, after which they might have had all the time to have siesta before the next Day of Obligation mass to be attended by the mayor's daughters." They could have flaunted forgiveness instead of anger and hatred.
     Another friend of a friend of a friend, meanwhile, said, "The artist is mad at Christianity. There's a sure sign that it's in his system."
     To which I offered, "I cannot speak for the artist but I can speak for my own reading of the artworks, as only I could and perhaps should for those interested. For there is such a thing as 'aniconism in Christianity', in contrast to aniconisms elsewhere, which therefore makes it not an extra-Christian attitude but one which had been at work within Christianity. Its manifestations is most remembered in Early Christianity before 325 AD, in the Byzantine iconoclasms of the 8th and 9th centuries (730-787 AD and 814-842 AD), in 16th cenutry Calvinism, and in 16th and 17th century Puritanism, but is definitely present in our century most notably in Christian Fundamentalism. It might be more apt to say the artwork is 'mad at Christian imagery, especially Catholic imagery'."
     Now, assuming this reading of mine (one of a few other readings I could muster) jives with the artist's own intent, what now?
     It's about time artists wake up to the reality bite of The Death of the Author, if they haven't already. That death can be for real, without being literal. Because art from now on, in a more compartmentalized world, shall be that struggle between the artist's silence outside of his art and the collective audience's noise within their own metanarratives upon art.