MANILA, Philippines —Can creators of art that some find bad or offensive use freedom of expression to justify their work?
Priests and national artists were apparently unconvinced by attempts to invoke freedom of expression to defend artist Mideo Cruz’s “shock art” that caused the sudden closure of an exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
“Nothing is obscene in art. There are only bad artists and bad writers,” F. Sionil Jose, National Artist for Literature, told the Senate committee on education, culture and arts on Tuesday.
“The issue here is not freedom of expression (but) art. I saw the photos (of Cruz’s exhibit) and it is not art. The photos illustrate how the artist is immature and juvenile,” Jose noted.
National Artist for Visual Arts Abdulmari Asia Imao said he was particularly offended by Cruz’ decision to put a phallic symbol on the forehead of an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The installation is among several displayed at the CCP main gallery until August 5.
“Mabigat ‘yung paggamit ng penis sa front ni Jesus Christ (The use of penis at the front of Jesus Christ is a grave matter. I am a Muslim (yet) I know my religious parameters,” Imao said.
The two artistic awardees were among several resource persons called to give inputs on the conundrum faced by the CCP following the “Kulo (Boil)” exhibit that featured 32 artists, among them Cruz.
The exhibit was supposed to run from June 15 to August 21.
CCP chair Emily Abrera cited public outcry and threats of physical harm being hurled against board members as reasons.
“The CCP should be more sensitive to the definition of art, of Filipino art. (Art) is the work of creative imagination and propounds (a message). (Cruz’s work) is not art at all. I hope that in the future, our friends in the CCP would be more perceptive of the very profound and great demand of what art is,” Jose said.
The CCP made a power point presentation of Cruz’s work that also included a Christ the King sculpture with Mickey Mouse ears, a crucifix with pink condoms resting on its horizontal bars and another crucifix with a red phallus jutting out.
Abrera and CCP vice president and artistic director Chris Millado took turns defending the supposed messages of Cruz’ work.
Millado said the installations presented were “very strong. Intense expressions of ideology” and were also statements about “religious and political authority.”
Abrera said the use of religious icons were not “a comment about religion but how society treats things we idolize.”
Cebu Archbishop Rev. Jose Palma said Cruz’s works were offensive to the clergy “because it’s not just a picture. It is a picture of Jesus Christ, the picture of God. Someone we adore.”
“We would be mad if the same is done to a picture of a loved one. Moreso, God. It should not be repeated,” added Palma, vice president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.
Fr. Pablo Tiong of the University of Sto. Tomas denied that the school had any direct involvement in the exhibit of works of UST alumni.
He maintained that freedom of expression is not absolute. “This exhibit did not have the UST’s blessing or endorsement….and it has placed (the school) in a very embarrassing position.”
Tiong also said Cruz might have joined an exhibit of UST alumni artists but he did not earn any degree from the university.
Meanwhile, Dean Raul Pangalangan of the UP Law School noted that Philippine courts “have given such latitude” to freedom of expression.
He cited a case where the Church objected to utterances made by the Iglesia ni Cristo about the Virgin Mary.
Pangalangan said the court ruled “it must protect the speech however unclean it may be. It cannot censor the speech…simply because it attacks other religions.”
A second case where the Islamic Dawa Council filed a defamation case against a tabloid also failed to prosper.
Pangalangan said that after the tabloid called Muslims “pig worshippers” for their refusal to eat pork, the court still refused to side with the Islamic group. It said a defamation suit “needed a specific victim because imputation of slight is not enough.”
Lawyer Florin Hilbay of the UP Law School said freedom of expression was crafted “for those forms of expression that disturb, offend, and even anger us…If (we) all like the same forms of expression, there wouldn’t be need for it.”
“The CCP has discretion to exhibit but it did not go out of its way to offend the public, or exert effort to offend the Catholic faith. No one compelled to look at exhibit.,” Hilbay added.
”The State response should be to protect the CCP board from potential harm,” he said.
Archbishop Palma countered that if freedom of expression did not cover violence, it should not apply to Cruz’ offense of violating Jesus’ images.
“There is no desire to hurt the CCP or Mideo but great violence was done to the photographs of Jesus that we consider to be very sacred. Do not insult or hurt us by putting that kind of violence in pictures we consider very sacred,” Palma said.
”That’s why I’m saying the artist is not good,” Jose butted in. “It’s like young people putting a moustache in pictures (when there should be recognition that) Jesus was beaten up, crowned with thorns and crucified.”
UST’s Tiong referred to Article 19 of the Civil Code of the Philippines that stated every person must “act with justice, give his due and observe honesty and good faith.”
“This means everyone who exercised freedom of expression is obliged to (observe Article 19). The constitutional right to freedom of expression cannot be availed to broadcast, insult, destroy the name or bring disrepute,” Tiong said.
Artist Imao recalled that he also had issues with creative expression especially after he began specializing in crosses despite being a faithful to Islam.
“The Muslim brothers got mad. They said I should not do that. It is not permitted. I said God did not prohibit me from using my talent,” Imao said.
“Cruz’s error was that he did not put limits to his imagination. There was an excess in his creative expression…Bigyan natin ng kaunting pasensya (Let’s be patient),” he added.
Senate culture committee chair Edgardo Angara said he would not recommend sanctions against the CCP board.
“The officers already said they are reviewing their policies related to exhibits and other public activities. I have already adjourned the hearing,” Angara announced afterwards.