Editor’s note: Below is what the author, a member of the CCP Board of Trustees, calls as a “Reflection on the Controversial Exhibit at the CCP.”
I am writing this reflection as a response to Florangel Braid’s observations on the forum shortly after the CCP executive board meeting on Friday, Aug. 5, convened by Raul Sunico, CCP president, to discuss the brewing controversy spawned by the exhibit “Kulo,” and also to reiterate some points I raised during the meeting.
Present in that meeting were Sunico; Emily Abrera, chair of the board of trustees; trustees Braid, Isabel Caro Wilson, Nedy Tantoco, Carol Espiritu, architect Cristina Turalba and myself.
I was provided a copy of Nick Lizaso’s letter of objection to the exhibit and Antonio Yap’s e-mail with the same objection.
To my recollection, there were six trustees who were opposed to the exhibit: Sunico, Tantoco, Wilson and I, who were present, and Lizaso and Yap, who sent their objections by e-mail. Those who were in favor of the exhibit were Abrera, Braid and Espiritu.
At the end of the meeting, Abrera said she was not calling for a vote, but only to consult with the board members, and that the exhibit could not be closed due to the contract that provided for the use of the venue until the third week of August.
Of course, heated exchanges were made during the board meeting. I, for one, restated my own expression of freedom of speech, which I sent by cell phone at the very start of the uproar occasioned by the exhibit, in an equally dramatic fashion: “May the families of those who rejoice in the insult against heaven be cursed for seven generations, and may their households be consumed with misery for the same length of time.”
I added that it should not disturb those who do not share my faith, and should it ever happen, they can shrug it off as mere coincidence, since the connection cannot be proven empirically.
I subscribe to the liberal humanism of Pope John Paul II, of revered memory, specifically with regard to culture and the arts.
The Gospel passage “…that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (Plenitude of Life—John 10:10), has always been the reference of my involvement in cultural work since the 1970s as we battled martial law, even as a founder of one of the first arts councils affiliated with the CCP from 1988 onward.
That the CCP has accorded us, the Ibabao Arts Council of Calbayog, Inc. the Pilak honor in 2004 is a distinct recognition of our enduring work in the cultural transformation of our country. I believe this is also the principal reason why I was appointed to the CCP board of trustees in 2009.
The freedom that must come from this frame of reference is freedom of expression with an important caveat: It must not harm others. That freedom is based on one preeminent task, as secular humanism would passionately argue—the founding of a just and peaceful society.
I submit, therefore, that the exhibit “Kulo” is an incendiary attack against Christian faith as whole, and the Catholic Church in particular.
As all art exhibits are founded on the so-called creative intent of the artists, the counter-discourse cannot be dismissed by the claim to so-called freedom of expression; it cannot hide behind constitutional guarantees, for the freedom of religion is also a paramount guarantee of a civilized constitution.
The unjust vexations suffered by Christians, Catholics in particular, occasioned by the exhibit at government-funded Cultural Center of the Philippines, might even give the wrong impression that the ruling political powers have let loose their hounds against the Catholic Church.
Into the ‘Devil’s Labyrinth’
In the debate that ensued during the board meeting, I asked the presiding officer whether she would allow an exhibit that would feature a frame of the President treated in the same way as the debauched face of Jesus Christ in the exhibit.
She answered that President Aquino’s effigy has been burned on the street.
I said that I was not referring to anywhere else but the CCP.
Yes, she said.
Then I wondered aloud: How would the Aquino family feel if there was an exhibit at the CCP that defaced Cory Aquino?
When the officer in charge of the Visual Arts Division (Karen Ocampo Flores) was invited in, I asked her if she would have allowed another exhibit, God forbid, that blasphemed the revered Islamic prophet.
She could not answer. She found the question difficult to answer; but she seemed not to have any qualms about giving permission to an exhibit that mocked Christianity.
It was suggested that the exhibit also referred to the National Hero, Dr. José Rizal, who was a UST student and who attacked religious institutions.
I protested that Rizal never hurled an insult at God. He was not expelled by the Dominicans. To connect the exhibit to him is to abuse and dishonor his memory.
When Espiritu wanted to dismiss the voices of protest as coming only from the Catholics, I told her that no God-fearing Christian would not consider the exhibit offensive—Catholic or not.
I hastened to remind her that the CCP was funded by taxes which Catholics also paid. A trustee retorted that the bishops do not pay taxes. I argued that millions of Catholics like me paid taxes, directly or indirectly.
At that point, I realized that the debate was pointless. I felt that the prejudice by some trustees against the Catholic Church precluded any further discussion.
You reap what you sow
If we argue for freedom of expression by allowing the “blasphemous” exhibit at the CCP, do we have the right to deprive those who were aggrieved or maligned by it to express their indignation as passionately and as strongly as the artists by their “artistic expression”? Are we not guilty of bigotry, if we want the Catholics to shut up because they are just Catholics? Wouldn’t such attitude invite the millions of Catholic faithful to take us to task?
It seems that it is now “open season” against the Church that paved the way for another Aquino to ascend the presidency via the much televised funeral where he was endorsed by his younger sister to the grieving nation.
It is ironical that the Church that offered sanctuary to Corazon Aquino, in life and in death, should be the object and subject of attack by those who want to curry favor with the Palace.
Braid, who holds my utmost respect, wrote in her e-mail: “I was just wondering that while we are witnessing many abuses of human rights (on children, vulnerable minority groups, etc.), which certainly are more shocking, these holy defenders of our morals have gone out of their way to spew insult to ‘betrayers of public trust’ like us who certainly had no malicious intent. They even showed distrust by saying that this may have been timed with the Reproductive Health and Divorce bills. Which is farthest from the mind of Karen and our board.”
The inference that the Church has been remiss in fighting for human rights is unfair and cannot be sustained, considering the broad involvement and advocacy by Church people on social issues. Lay people and priests have lost their lives in standing up for human rights.
The greater tragedy is the chasm between the Church, which stood up against martial law, and the liberals, who would want the Church to gobble up whatever is served to it, has widened. The recent abuses heaped upon the Church by the operatives of the “liberal” agenda now encourage disengagement from cooperation with government and distance from greater dialogue with liberal humanism.
Redress of grievance
I concurred with the lawyer present that the matter should go to court, so as to define the limits to the constitutional guarantee on the freedom of expression. I would counsel the Catholics to write to their House representatives and the senators to voice out their concern.
Other recourses can include a boycott of companies and products that sponsor CCP programs and events. These recourses are more preferable to violence.
I am tempted to take the challenge to every parish… and bring the discourse to the attention of every tax-paying Catholic, that our Catholic voices matter.
There is an intensified clamor for the CCP chair and board to resign. Perhaps, it’s the more honorable and decent way to deflect the arrows that will be aimed at the presidency.
I have no qualms about resigning my CCP seat.
The author is a Franciscan friar and the moderator general of the Congregatio S. Francesco Peregrinorum (CSFP, or Pilgrim Brothers of Saint Francis). He is based in Punta Princesa, Cebu City, and is into cultural work as chair of the Pasundayag Cultural Network and Institute of Drama for the Development of Peoples, and executive board member of the ITI International Monodrama Forum and ITI Philippine Center.