An artist for the people

This speech was delivered at the 38th Commencement Exercises of the Philippine High School for the Arts, held at the National Arts Center, Makiling, Laguna, on March 27, 2015.

National Artist Francisco Sionil Jose, CCP President Dr Raul Sunico, Director Vim Nadera, Faculty and Officials of the Philippine High School for the Arts, dear members of the PHSA Graduating Class of 2015, beloved parents, and respected guests. Magandang umaga po sa ating lahat.

On this beautiful and auspicious morning, on a day of great pith and moment to all of us here, let me begin by extending my heartfelt congratulations to the members of the PHSA Class of 2015. Mabuhay kayo, ang inyong mga guro at mga magulang. In the last 4 years, you have undergone a special kind of education, one that developed your unique skills as budding literary, performing, visual, and cinematic artists. In a few months, most, if not all, of you will be entering the university, most probably to major in an artistic field that you have chosen for yourself not only as an area for your degree but probably even as a career for life. As you are exposed to the different disciplines of the arts and sciences in the university and gain a deeper understanding of the realities now prevailing in your country, your world as an artist will slowly but surely grow beyond the concern of merely honing or expanding your artistic skills and will begin to encompass larger questions, questions about the society you were born into, the meaning of your art to you as a person, and the significance of your art to your society. Without pre-empting the joy that you will experience when you discover the answers to your questions in the coming years, allow me to share with you a few thoughts that you might consider on what I believe are some of the challenges that await you as an artist in Philippine society today.

First, let me express my firm and considered belief that no artist can create art for its own sake, nor do I believe that an artist can express his ideas and emotions simply and only for the sake of attaining catharsis in the process of creating them. Those who subscribe to the theory of art for art’s sake believe that they can prescind from the realities of their society and create art without any ideology, as pure aesthetes.

But nothing could be farther from the truth. To begin with, art for art’s sake is a 19th century theory that is the counterpart of the theory of economic liberalism and the parallel theory of liberal democracy. As free enterprise emphasizes the right of the individual bourgeois to use his capital to build a personal fortune and as a constitutional democracy insists on every individual’s right to freedom of expression, religion, and assembly, so art for art’s sake proclaims the solitary genius of the artist who creates art works that are primarily reflections of himself, extensions of his personality, and embodiments of his personal feelings, thoughts, and aspirations. That art for art’s sake has no ideology is a fallacy pure and simple, because even as the aesthete, who believes himself exempt from ideology, sings of his unique talent, he is actually and essentially endorsing the ideology of political individualism and economic capitalism. It is no accident that the rise of aesthetically oriented and almost self-indulgent art works coincided with the rise of the art market, where big business invested idle capital in art, hoping that art works would appreciate in value with the rise of the artist’s popularity.

Moreover, whether the artist believes in art for art’s sake or in socially committed art, his art works are seen, heard, and experienced by viewers and audiences, and therefore necessarily impinge on the latter’s senses and enter their consciousness. Whether the visual artist is aware of it or not, for example, his rectangle of a painting hanging on a blank wall will become the window through which the viewer will see the world. At the time of perception, the eyes of the artist and the eyes of the viewer become one and the same. In that moment of communion, the viewer will either see or not see, either understand or misunderstand whatever reality the painter has chosen to interpret. In a very real sense, the painting can trap the viewer in a claustrophobic world of the art work or it can liberate him by making him appreciate the subject in a light he had never seen it in before.

If art then cannot escape its function of communication, it might as well take it up as a challenge. If the artist’s work necessarily impacts on his society, then the artist might just as well take up the responsibility of using his art to illuminate the world, to comment on its meanings or lack of meanings, to examine its values and activities, and to introduce and effect change when and if necessary. If the artist’s understanding of his society is deep and comprehensive, if his vision as a person is sharp, holistic, and far-reaching, his art will go a long way in enlightening audiences both about themselves and their society.

In a Third World country like the Philippines, the need for an artist to engage with his audience and to enlighten and be enlightened by them becomes so urgent as to be mandatory. To create art for its own sake in a country like ours is to be onanistic, narcissistic, and nihilistic. It is to play the violin, while Rome burns (musicians, please forgive the metaphor). In a nation where more than 70% of the population fall below the poverty line, where a tiny elite freely exploits the national economy and government for their own ends, where corruption and injustice are built into the system, all Filipinos, but especially those like you who have had the benefit of education, are called upon to take on the Herculean task of creating social change, whether in the short or long term. It is my devout hope that you as citizens of this country will respond to this challenge and become artists of and for the people.

But what exactly can you do as artists to help in the project of social change? What kind of art should you create and for whom?

Social change will be achieved if the majority of Filipinos are able to recognize and understand the major problems they confront in society. Once enlightened, they may then take action by coming together with other enlightened countrymen to take a stand on issues and take active steps to protect and promote the rights of the majority. Of the two movements mentioned above, namely, enlightenment and action, it is perhaps in the first where the artist, like all educators in academe or media, can play a crucial role.

If social enlightenment is to be the principal goal, the artist must first of all employ artistic forms that are capable of depicting social realities whether in static images (figurative paintings, komiks, sculptures, effigies) or moving images (dance, film video), in sounds (music) or in words (literature, song lyrics) or a combination of the above (theater). While the depiction of social realities may be executed in the different personal styles of the artist, such depiction must always be done from the point of view of our people, whose rights and welfare must always be protected and advanced. In short, the artist should interpret these realities not from the point of view of the elite, but from the point of view of the vast majority of Filipinos and their common good.

Allow me now to focus on some of the most urgent issues in our society that should be addressed by young artists because these are major issues which our people should understand in order to change society. For each issue, permit me to describe examples from the visual, performing, literary or cinematic arts that I believe succeed in describing these social problems in terms of their context, implications, and effects both on the individual and the society in general. Among others, the following topics have emerged as major concerns not only in society but also in many art forms: 1) American colonization and Filipino Identity, 2) the rule of politicians and the police, 3) ethnicity and regional identity, 4) the plight of workers, including OFWs, 5) LGBT issues, 6) the travails of childhood, 7) issues of the environment, and 8) the perils of media.

The colonial experience under America at the beginning of the 20th century is the subject of an acrylic painting by Bencab called Brown Man’s Burden, 1972, which shows 4 men in ethnic attire carrying a palanquin where sits a faceless white man in a suit. Done at the height of activism in the 1970s, the title reverses the famous Kipling statement that the civilization and education of the brown man is the responsibility of the white man, in this case, the American colonizer. Instead, the painting shows the white man, meaning US colonization, as the burden weighing on the nation’s shoulders even in 1972.

The rejection of the colonial culture and the affirmation of the native race, language, and culture are typified by two songs of the 1970s. "American Junk" by the Apo, 1985, refers to American pop songs and American presence in general that stifle Filipino creativity and “leave us poor and in misery.” On a positive note, Heber Bartolome’s "Tayo’y mga Pinoy," 1978, affirms the legitimacy of the brown race and enjoins Filipinos to be proud of their Malay features ("Huwag kang mahihiya kung ang ilong mo ay pango"), even as it satirizes Filipinos who love to speak English but do it badly anyway.

The domination of the political, economic, and social elite is exposed in many artworks today. The pop song "Tatsulok (Triangle/Pyramid)" of Buklod, revived by Bamboo in 2007, likens the hierarchy of Philippine society to a pyramid with a few rich and influential elite on top taking undue advantage of the many poor people who form the base. It calls for a reversal of the pyramid.

Part of the elite are the politicians who control the majority of seats in the legislature so that they and the dynasty they establish in government can protect and advance their businesses interests. Chito Roño’s Badil, 2014, exposes the way politicians hire barangay captains to buy votes in the barrios and how such practice is exacerbated by “badil” (literally, a dynamite explosion), meaning the last minute arrival of huge sums of money for the opposite party, which forces the barrio people to switch sides at the last minute. The film On The Job, 2014, shows how politicians remain in power by eliminating their rivals in politics and corruption. Here a congressman and an army man collude with the jail warden to secretly release at night convicts who are expert killers, so that the latter can get rid of the congressman’s competition. The next day, with money in their pockets, they go back to their prison cells as though nothing happened.

On a lower level, but no less violent are the police whose illegal practices have been meticulously researched and presented in several films. Kubrador, 2006, follows one day in the life of a woman who goes around the slums collecting jueteng bets and gets caught by the police who treat her with kid gloves because they also place bets with her to “augment” their small salaries. But what they win is nothing in comparison to the huge percentage the army general earns every day from the illegal number games. In Posas, 2012, a petty thief who steals a cellphone is made to admit his crime, but is “saved” by the police chief from a court case which would have fined him P100,000. But in exchange, the thief must pay the same amount in installment to the police chief, who further tightens control over the telephone snatcher by making him do the dirty work of killing a criminal. In Kinatay, 2009, an active police sergeant and captains preside over the collection of protection money, the sale of drugs, and the rape, murder, and dismemberment of an aging prostitute who has repeatedly failed to pay for the drugs she got from the police.

The problems of ethnicity are now tackled by many films, where for the first time ethnolinguistic groups are depicted with fidelity and without condescencion. Brillante Medoza’s Manoro, 2006, is about an Ayta girl who graduates from the elementary school and goes back to her village up in Pinatubo. Because she is the only literate person in the community, she takes it upon herself to teach her elders how to write their names so they can vote in the elections of 2004. Teng Mangansakan’s Limbunan (Bridal Chamber), 2010, is an insider’s view of the Maguindanao practice of keeping a young woman in a bridal chamber for a month before the day of her arranged wedding, so that her female relatives can prepare her physically and psychologically for the wedding. The young woman is not in love with her future groom but after her mother and aunt talk to her, she acquiesces to the marriage.

The plight of workers is exposed in various art forms. In Jade Castro’s Endo, 2007, the temporary nature of workers’ employment (which is deliberately ended before the sixth month so that the company will not be forced to give workers mandatory benefits) affects and governs the personal relationships between casual workers themselves. They begin to feel that they are incapable of maintaining personal relationships just as they are incapable of finding and holding permanent jobs.

Among workers, the OFWs account for the most number of works in various genres. A 2014 Ateneo exhibit depicts the OFW experience in terms of Filipino folk beliefs. In Rodel Tapaya’s manananggal work, several fiberglass torsos with wings and holding hand-carried bags hang from the ceiling, looking like so many manananggal flying in a group up the stairs to the entrance of the Ateneo art gallery. Inside the gallery, in a corner facing the entrance, stand the lower halves of these flying torsos. The flat spaces of the truncated waists are painted with bucolic landscapes or urban scenes in the Philippines, presumably the location of the residences that the OFWs have left behind. Like the manananggal, Filipino workers leave half of themselves (their loved ones, their homes) to fly to foreign countries for better wages. But like the manananggal also, they will always feel incomplete abroad and will always yearn for home where they can be reunited with those they left behind and become whole again.

Gender themes have become more frequent, more realistic, and more honest in art forms in the past decades. Julie Lluch’s Onions Always Make Me Cry, 1987, presents the artist herself shedding tears as she slices onions in preparation for a meal. Her tears are caused not only by the onions but by the role of cook and housekeeper that the patriarchy has assigned to women, imprisoning them at home and stifling their potential for personal and professional development. Bwakaw, 2012, is a film about a gay man in his 60s who lives alone with his dog Bwakaw. In time he falls for a tricycle driver who rejects his amorous advances. After his dog Bwakaw dies, he concludes that a gay man can find contentment by himself and needs no partner to complete him. Rome and Juliet, 2006, is the first film that depicts lesbians not as stereotype tomboys but as real individuals with personal and familial problems of their own. Juliet, who is engaged to be married to a rich yuppie, falls in love with the wedding planner Rome, a flower shop owner who, unlike her fiancée, is able to accept her for what she is.

Environmental issues have attracted the attention of many contemporary artists. Joey Ayala’s Agila, Haring Ibon, 1982, uses the vanishing Philippine eagle as a metaphor for the disappearing forest and the decline of tribal cultures. He decries the greed of humans who deplete the earth’s resources for their own profit without regard for the regeneration of these resources. Brutus, 2008, is a film about two poor Mangyan children who agree to do “Brutus” in order earn some money. Brutus requires the children to haul illegally cut logs down the hills to the river where they are lashed together, hidden under a raft, and floated down the river to the town proper, to be picked up by illegal log buyers. As the children go about their task, they are caught between the conflict between government soldiers and NPA rebels.

The travails of Filipino children is tackled in a slew of recent films. Boses, 2008, is about a child who is unable to speak because he has been traumatized by constant physical abuse from his father. In a rehabilitation center, the boy is able to slowly recover his speech and self-confidence when he learns to play the violin and turns out to be a prodigy. In Baseco: Bakal Boys, 2009, children of the slums regularly dive into the water to collect pieces of metal that have sunk into the sea. This they sell to a junk collector to earn some money for the family. Some children drown in this kind of occupation. In Ang Daan Patungong Kalimugtong, 2005, two children who live in the Benguet Mountains survive on nothing but sayote and traverse hills and rivers every single day to attend the nearest school in town.

Media too has been criticized in many an art form. Ronald Ventura’s Overtones, 2008, reproduces a classical painting in black and white with a woman in Renaissance dress playing a cello while a naked child stands listening to her, except that here the heads of both the woman and the child have been replaced by television sets. From the child’s head-TV set float on a curved line in mid-air (yes, an “air-wave”) toward the woman’s head-TV set separate images of a pack of gold Marlboros, a smaller TV set, a can of Ligo sardines, a tub of KFC Fried Chicken, a can of Coke Zero, a jacket and a blouse, and a pizza in a box. The superimposition of such mundane objects over a classical image shocks us into the realization of how the medium of television and its unending stream of commercials have replaced fine, soulful music, in favor of shallow entertainment and personal interaction between performer and audience with an impersonal electronic medium of communication. Other topics which have been the subject of artistic works are the war in Mindanao, the conflict between the NPA and the AFP, and the kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf.

It must be remembered, however, that the works mentioned here succeeded as art, not only because of the topics they chose to focus on but because they interpreted this topics according to the highest standards of their medium, whether this be a painting, play, a song, or a film. And so it should be for the art works you yourselves will be creating in the future. It is essential that you as artists discover the aesthetic style and standard appropriate to the vision of the art work and to the audience that the art work is addressed to.

In conclusion, allow me to summarize my major points. Do not subscribe to the theory of art for art’s sake because art by its nature is a form of communication and as such impinges on the audience’s consciousness. If that be so, then, second, the artist is well advised to take on the challenge of creating art that will contribute to social change by enlightening viewers and audiences about the nature and causes of the problems they face as Filipinos today. Third, in portraying the realities of our time, artists must always aspire to the artistic standards that suit their vision and audiences. If your art works can equal the significance and artistry of the paintings, songs, plays, and films mentioned above, then you would have succeeded in becoming an artist of the people, one who enlightens and empowers his countrymen through his art. To my mind, there is no higher ideal that the Filipino artist can aspire for.

Maraming salamat sa inyong pakikinig. – Rappler.com

Nationalist, author, playwright, and film critic Nicanor G. Tiongson is a founding member of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino. He is currently Professor Emeritus of Film and Audio-visual Communication at the College of Mass Communication in UP Diliman.