A Case for the Kulo Exhibit

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This is a piece of commentary I wrote regarding the heated controversy the previous year surrounding the work of artist Mideo Cruz entitled "Poleteismo". While this mostly deals with the Filipino context, it also comments on the nature of art in society in general.

I provide a sufficient backgrounder regarding the case in the essay, but you may also refer to www.gmanetwork.com for news regarding the controversy.

Submitted: April 28, 2012

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Submitted: April 28, 2012




I was amused by something Francis Kong said in one of the radio broadcasts of Business Matters beyond the Bottom Line, which went something along these lines: he asked people what they would do if they won the jackpot at the sweepstakes. One answered that they would give 10% of the money to their church; another said they would give 50% to the church. And one businessman, after contemplating, said that with that money he would buy the church. Francis Kong noted that this was a very clever business idea, considering how much money people were willing to give to the church.

But whether this has anything to do with money is beyond the point. What the above scenario presents to us is how influential a force religious belief is, not just in the way people view things but also how they implement and carry out the state’s laws, among other things (a la RH and Equality bills). This fact is “exhibited” quite profoundly in one of the more recent incidents, namely the controversy surrounding the “Kulo” art exhibit presented in the Cultural Center of the Philippines but has since been shut down. This article attempts to shed light on the situation, but does not claim to be the most comprehensive piece on the issue.

Short backgrounder

“Kulo" was an art exhibit that supposedly was to run from June 17 to August 21 in line with the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ (CCP) celebration of Jose Rizal’s 150th birthday anniversary, and featured artists who were former students at the University of Santo Tomas. The heated controversy however was not sparked by the exhibit as a whole, but rather by the piece entitled “Poleteismo” by Mideo Cruz, which included items such as a movable penis plastered onto a cross, a phallus (i.e. also a penis) on the forehead of an image of Jesus Christ, a condom (i.e. not necessarily a penis) on a crucifix, etc. Because of this, both Cruz and the CCP have received hate mails, negative criticism, and death threats—originating mostly from religious institutions. At one point the exhibit was vandalized, with damage being done to the works of other artists coupled with the possibility of more than just vandalism occurring in the future. All of this prompted the institution to close the exhibit.

Since then, some Catholic groups have threatened to press charges for obscenity and indecency against the people responsible for the exhibit, with Senate Majority Floor Leader Vicente Sotto III even threatening to cut the budget allotted for the CCP should its officials fail to give a good explanation for allowing the exhibit to go on.  And Imelda Marcos, former First Lady and wife of the late President Ferdinand Marcos under whose administration the CCP was built, described the exhibit as “ugly” and “not at all right.”

But others have also come to the clearing in its defense, with some expressing equally scathing sentiments. Fellow artists have condemned the CCP’s decision to close the exhibit, calling it a repressive form of censorship with CCP Vice-President Chris Millado likening the public outrage to “bullying” on people’s freedom of expression. J. Pacena II, the curator of the exhibit put it quite bluntly in his official statement, saying that their “right to freely express ourselves were curtailed,” going further by saying he was “shocked and appalled by how our civil liberties were exploited to satiate the sensibilities of a raucous mob.”

The events have aroused responses from all over, questioning matters such as the legality of the closure, influence of the religious system, freedom of expression, the role of the media in the controversy, and even how we as a state defines or should define as “art”. We will get to some of them later.

Calling on the aggrieved

The dominant sentiment of those calling for the closure of the exhibit—either victims or victimizers, depending on how you view things—was that the work was “blasphemous” (i.e. irreverence towards religious artifacts, customs, etc.) and “sacrilegious” (i.e. injurious or damaging treatment of religious items), and that it offended the religious beliefs of a majority of the people who are Catholic Christians. As such, it obstructs and tramples on the religious belief of others by desecrating their sacred images.

President Aquino, in his own criticism of the exhibit (again referring mostly to Cruz’s works) in regards to the CCP’s principle of being in the service of the people, comments that he doesn’t see “how you can be serving the people when you insult the religious beliefs of most of the people.” This should also be considered, according also to presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda, stating that “it’s a majority of us Catholics and Christians who were offended and admittedly, it’s the manner by which the art was presented was offensive to the sensibilities of Christians and Catholics.” Lacierda adds that “you have to also remember that you’re using taxpayers’ money for this exhibit” and so one has “to be more sensitive with the use of taxpayers’ money.”

One of our country’s national artists, the esteemed F. Sionil Jose also gave his two cents on Mideo Cruz’s work. He calls it “an immature and juvenile attempt at caricature,” and adds that “for all their [the visual artists] superb craftsmanship, they lack imagination and they don't think hard enough.” He emphasized further that freedom of expression was not involved in that particular exhibit, and that “artistic sensibility and rigid critical values are the norm should prevail if our culture is to develop.”

The summary of the aggrieved party’s call basically boils down to two things. The first concerns offended sensibilities, specifically the sensibilities of members of a rather large and influential religious group who make up about 85% of the Philippine population and therefore constitutes 85% of all the tax collected. The second concerns the artwork in and of itself and the methods in which they are portrayed, which in the case of Mideo Cruz was inappropriate for the subject matter it attempted to criticize and inappropriate in its entirety as an art form (i.e. bad art).

Calling on the defense

To start, it must be noted that the CCP maintains that the decision to close the exhibit was not to appeal to the sensibilities of the aggrieved party but was decided due to the “increasing number of threats to persons and property,” both to artists and CCP officials, according to their official statement. The closure was therefore not a submission to censorship but a necessary precaution in order to protect individuals and assets. As far as the CCP are concerned, they still continue “to fight hard to keep itself free from influences or pressures that threaten artistic expression,” as CCP Vice President Chris Millado put it.

The 1987 Philippine Constitution mandates the protection of the kind of art created by Cruz and all other artists, plainly stated in Article III, Section 4 that “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press…” Where religious belief seems intrinsically involved, as is the case, Section 5 of the same article continues by stating that “No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Note that when we say “law” in this context we are not referring only to actual legislation; it also refers to making decisions on what is generally considered politically and socially appropriate, and the curtailing or allowing of such actions (in this case, the creation of art).

So while the members of the Catholic Church are allowed to voice out their objections, they have no right to force the closure of the exhibit as per the provision on the freedom of speech by sheer force of influence. This is especially so when we note that the Cultural Center of the Philippines is a government institution, in which “the separation of Church and State” is made very clear in Article II, Section 6.

Of course, it begs the question of whether or not Cruz’s work is protected expression. Former Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once pointed out that such constitutional guarantees “obviously were not intended to give immunity for every possible use of language.” Certain factors may make certain expressions forfeit the constitutional guarantee, such as those laid down in the 2009 case of Eliseo F. Soriano of Ang Dating Daan. The court ruled in the case that unprotected speech (or in this case, artistic expression) refers to those which are libelous, obscene (ex. pornography, which is not to be confused with nudity), false or misleading, insulting or for whose purpose is to deliberately insight violence—“that is, those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of peace and expression endangering national security.”

The summary of the defense, therefore, is that Mideo Cruz’s “Poleteismo”, and indeed the rest of the Kulo exhibit, are protected by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression because the works do not fit any of the criteria set out in the above case. They were not libelous or harmful to the dignity and honor of any particular person, they were not grossly obscene (even if they may be “juvenile or immature”, as F. Sionil Jose put it), and they were certainly not designed to deliberately insight violence. This last criterion is especially important because it refers to the motive and intention of the artwork. It must be said that the purpose of the artworks, as with many others preceding it, served the function of political and social commentary—not, as would be required by the points laid down in the court case, a deliberate act meant to directly scandalize, disrespect, or insult a particular religion or group of people.

The artist and his art

Considering the apparently difficult situation, it might be worth taking account of the artist himself and place things within the context of his own design. Poleteismo according to the artists “is about the worship of relics and how idolatry evolves through history and modern culture.” But can he expound more on this idea? In an interview conducted by Art Info, an international news site for art and culture, he goes into some detail about his controversial piece.

Asked how he would describe his work and his inspiration, he says that “it serves as a mirror for a life full of opposing realities. It is meant to reflect on how we construct our imagined realities.”  Cruz observed that the same kinds of images can be seen in every home, right down to the pseudo-homes of the impoverished members of the country. “Things are posted … as a way to decorate the space or to affect how others perceive us. The details of the images in my installation are full of metaphorical ironies based on my personal doubts about my society.” Contemplating further on that point, Cruz comes to the conclusion that “sadly, these relics are the images I see that our culture is creating.” He asserts that “we need to realize that this is the mirror of our society and of ourselves,” and that the adverse reactions provoked by his work “might reflect people's unconscious denial of seeing themselves truthfully in the mirror.”

“The reality of our society is the real blasphemy, the blasphemy of our sacred self.” the artist asserted.

But the people “took the show out of context,” said Cruz, “distorting images that had to be actually experienced” and created “a fragmented view of the work for the audience, rather than encouraging an experience of the work as a whole.”

What Cruz said in the interview is complementary to the defense’s case that the artwork was, more than anything, a political and social commentary. But the above paragraph presents perhaps one of the most disappointing facts of the case, as well as the most relevant: that is, that the audience goaded by the media and their religious leaders were conditioned towards taking a shallow perspective of the work, disregarding the deeper meaning behind it and forgetting to take the piece in its entirety; instead, they hand-selected very specific parts of the work and interpreted them completely out of context.

Conclusions, critiques, speculations

As far as the details presented show, it seems that the burden in this case is on the aggrieved party as far as the legal issues are concerned. But it is the implications of the case and the circumstances surrounding it that are striking, and not necessarily the case itself.

When I mentioned the items exhibited in the above backgrounder, they must not be taken as representative of the entire work of Cruz or of the entire exhibit that featured thirty or so other artists. Those particular items, as far as it can be discerned, were taken completely out of context—especially by the media, who played a major role in their irresponsible sensationalizing of the selected pieces, as opposed to their primary duty of informing and educating the public. Considering that most people will not be able to see the exhibit themselves (especially now that it’s been shut down), these same people would expect to receive an accurate portrait of the situation from the media they trust. On the part of the media, their sensationalizing of the controversy has had disastrous consequences, and was highly inappropriate. The same can perhaps be said for the religious leaders involved, who continued to whip their side into a frenzied stupor.

Also notice that in the previous section where I presented the case of the defense, I did not give an answer to the question of whether it was “good art” or “bad art” as proposed by F. Sionil Jose. This is because that the nature of art, if we are to assume a spectrum separating the good from the bad, would render the whole discussion moot; there is no real consensus, neither in the law nor in the artistic community, as to what can be objectively defined as art. If we were to consider the ideas of the artists themselves, we would have a plethora of contrasting definitions with a plethora of possible interpretations that would prove useless in jurisdiction; if we considered the rule of the majority, then we run the risk of undermining the voice of minority groups and also of the misrepresenting of the majority group, which flies at the face of democratic ideals; so on and so on. There would simply be no end to the talking. This in itself poses another problem with regards to the function and composition of art in as far as our laws are concerned.

Another little point that I thinks is interesting to note is that it is only now, at these particularly shaky times for the religious institutions of the country, that this exhibit has provoked such ire from said institutions. Note that, years earlier, the same exhibit was done without so much as a whisper from the people who are now clamoring for retribution. (The Kulo exhibit was also featured in the Ateneo de Manila University, which by the way is run mostly by Jesuit priests. One would expect similar violent responses from them, and yet we heard none.) Could it be that the reactions were politically motivated as well? Could it be that the religious leaders, finding themselves in increasingly deeper waters with the rise of different movements and growing discontent in recent times, found the exhibit to be a perfect target on which to rally their followers and provoke them into a unified mass under their authority? Perhaps, but that is a discussion for another time.

However this matter will be resolved, it has become apparent that the point of “Poleteismo” has been emphasized, if not proven outright, by what has occurred in light of the situation. It has provoked thought and discussion, and as the official press statement of Millado puts, “it served as an awakening … roused our senses, challenged us to take a deeper look, woke us up to a less innocent world.“ And in light of the function of art as commentary, Millado proposed that “the greatest learning is it proved to the public how potent art can be.” One certainly cannot deny its potency now.

© Copyright 2018 Jan Gabriel. All rights reserved.

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