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Can Art Be a Crime?

Marj is a journalist and part-time artist. Her articles range from communications and psychology to wealth management.


Art and Society

During quarantine, I took an art course given by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For our finals, we were asked to curate a set of images that were created in response to social, cultural, or political issues. After considering the suggested illustrious roster of names in their collection, I went against the assignment and chose a controversial Filipino artist instead. I thought it would be better for me to analyze something I truly understood, and in the process carry out an act of activism.

Poleteismo (Polytheism) by Mideo Cruz debuted in the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ “Kulo” (Boil) exhibit in 2011. The work resonated well with the course’s Art & Society lesson because it reflects the country’s obsession with icons in religion, pop-culture, and politics.

It was immediately controversial when the doors of the free exhibit opened. Catholic leaders and politicians, including the then President Benigno Aquino III, wanted it shuttered. And it was indeed closed down after pressure from the president. People started harassing the artist with death threats and violence on social media. While some vandalized the work, others tried to set the exhibit on fire. In two separate complaints, the organizers and Cruz were brought to court over the use of religious effigies along with phalluses, condoms, and other vile imagery like the poster of an inept celebrity/politician. The lawsuits came from a Catholic partylist and a born-again Christian preacher. In the imagination of the public, they had turned art into a crime.


Jesus and a Penis

The Philippines is a predominantly Christian country, with some zealots scattered around the fringes. To a sizeable number of the population, the juxtaposition of what is considered holy with images that connote sex provokes accusations of sacrilege or immorality. By putting together Jesus and a penis, Cruz had seemingly gone too far. In the case filed against Cruz and the CCP’s Board of Trustees, the respondents allegedly went against ethical standards, constituted grave misconduct, and acted in ways that were obscene and indecent.

In 2008, I wrote for a documentary series about the meaning of art produced by Prof. Nerisa Guevara for the University of Santo Tomas. Cruz was by then already a controversial figure in the art world, but not the nationally loathed artist he eventually became three years later with the sudden traction of Poleteismo. In the interview, he said he doesn’t consciously provoke, but it is a by-product of his art "interventions”.

“By intervening, you are giving a new meaning to a space because of the images you provide,” he explained in Filipino. He believes that his role is to supply hints on how the audience can open their imagination. This makes it tricky to define what a piece of art is, let alone Art with a capital A because it is subjective to the creator as well as for the viewer. Essentially, it is the audience that decides what his work represents.

“Art is imagination. If you define art, it’s like giving parameters to what others can explore in their imagination. How can you put boundaries on imagination? You can’t read or provide a definition of what others can imagine. If you do, you are putting parameters on the creativity of others.”

The episode between Cruz and his critics brought to mind the Nick Hornby short story “Nipple Jesus” in the book Speaking with the Angel where an artist creates a portrait of Jesus using nipples from porn. When it is vandalized by protesters, the artist reveals that it was a piece of performance art after all, where the portrait was simply made to rouse a violent reaction. The real artwork was the CCTV footage of the attack on the offensive collage. The artist was in control of the narrative from beginning to counter-intuitive end, to the disappointment of the security guard who rather liked that the portrait held up a middle finger at morality.

So who gets to define what is art? Were those who were offended and wanted Cruz’s installation dismantled have as much right as the curators who deemed the work worthy of the exhibition? Is their definition of blasphemy as valid as those who say religious iconography plus phallic symbols is deserving of discourse on religious hypocrisy? If one is free to call something art, one should also be free to call it trash, right?

And yet.

Were the reaction of critics not also made with theatricality? Their defense of good values, the physical threats directed at the artist, the criminal complaint? Wasn’t it also melodramatic and stagy? Can’t we also consider it a piece of performance art?

Art Is A Point of View

I think if a piece of art doesn’t inspire a spirited conversation then it’s not doing a very good job. Art is there to make you feel unsettled, to challenge what you think. The best artists made the people of their time uncomfortable. Those who didn’t have been forgotten.

I think art is political by nature. What is created now is created in the context of the now, the politics of the now, otherwise it can’t have existed in the environment of the now. Martha Rosler’s House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home collage series would not have been conceived at any other time. (For an art retrospective on The Vietnam War link here.) Even the cave paintings from the Ice Age could not have been created if the societal conditions for making them had not existed. The materials used were chosen deliberately. The subjects were chosen deliberately. The strokes were not happenstance. By choosing to depict certain scenes of their society onto a cave wall, the artist interpreted a story from a specific point of view. We know only what was left in, but nothing of what was left out. In one cave painting, there was a human with an animal head. Was it the ritual of an animal-worshipping shaman, was it symbolic, or was it fact? The answer is only as good as our imagination.

Fortunately, the law is not as freewheeling with its imagination. Former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales dismissed the criminal complaints against the artist and the institution for the nuisance they were.

An article on Rappler concludes the story this way:

[Ombudsman] Carpio-Morales said the exhibit could not be considered "obscene" because it did not depict "in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct nor appeals to the prurient interest."

"Nor was it found to be lacking in serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value as to remove it from the ambit of constitutionally protected expression."

But it never really stopped there. Cruz was saddled by trauma years after the harassment. Artists still have to explain their work to a public that doesn’t want to have the long-overdue dialogues that catalyze political change. As a society, we still have a lot of work to do on ourselves. It would be a crime not to do so.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 Marjorie Dumont