Sunday ∗ 19 Feb 2012

february in fact, is national arts month

in mid-2010, i wrote this as introductory piece for what was planned as a column on arts and culture in a publication under the editorship of exie abola. it is perfect that i remember it now in light of National Arts Month, with the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA) celebrating it via the Philippine Arts Festival 2012. that we are more than halfway through February, and we have yet to feel this celebration at all? that this still applies almost two years since? welcome to the state of the arts and culture in this country. 

The State of Culture’s Separation from the State (part 1)*

It’s telling that at the beginning of a new government that speaks of changing the nation, we haven’t heard any talk of culture, least of all from the president-to-be.  His sister of course is self-hailed as the queen of all media, that is, of various popular cultural productions such as advertising, magazines and television. This has proven to be a disconnect though, seeing as this sister is better known for lack of talent (still), whose claim to fame is that she talks way too much about herself, even when she shouldn’t. This isn’t honesty that she sells, it’s shamelessness.

Before Ishmael Bernal died, he thought Cory Aquino and daughter Kris killed the movie industry. A little over two decades since the EDSA Revolution, and Kris Aquino is selling everything from tile cleaner (and tiles, of course) to every piece of clothing she wears and food she eats. It’s difficult to disagree.

They after all came on the heels of Imelda Marcos. And while Imelda did have an egotistical take on culture, i.e., let’s re-write the Malakas at Maganda myth so it could become Ferdie and me! it’s hard to ignore the things that did happen for culture during her time as First Lady. Rooted in a possibly false sense of the true, the good and the beautiful, Imelda (unknowingly) allowed for experimental cinema in this country, producing the best films of our time from geniuses Bernal, Lino Brocka, Peque Gallaga. For whatever reason, despite the limitations of censorship, filmmakers and scriptwriters’ wings were spread, probably at the same time as writers and poets were being thrown in jail and forced into the underground. But within the cultural institutions Imelda put up, the freedom(s) of art were astounding. Now this isn’t to forgive the violence that was Martial Law, or Imelda for her conspicuous spending and lifestyle; if anything it’s just calling that spade, a spade.

Soon after Cory died, Imelda was given a tribute by the CCP. That’s telling of how messed up we continue to be about the Marcoses in general, and their contributions good and bad in particular.

And really, with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the comparison is uncanny. The only thing worse than the declaration of Martial Law is one that happens anyway under the pretense of democracy. This is GMA’s version of it, complete with contingent acts of disrespect and disregard for this country’s culture.  Of course if you have command-responsibility for extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, would you allow films about these to come out? Oh, but to censor films that show poverty and the uncertainty of our futures, how petty. And yet, there was nothing petty about her calculated up-yours to our institutions of culture and cultural workers.

Who can forget her unilateral decision to make filmmaker Carlo J. Caparas National Artist, disregarding the guidelines for becoming such, when his body of work is dominated by commercial movies reenacting massacres and murders, and when he didn’t illustrate the comics he takes credit for? What about the refusal to deal with history as she moves all our national historical holidays around for the benefit of capitalists and businessmen – who does she kid when she says she wants to give us all long weekends? In fact it’s all for consumer spending, and how does that benefit us, really?  And at the tail-end of her term as president, her irresponsible and crass midnight termination of services of National Museum and National Historical Institute officials, and appointing her own allies into the vacant positions.

No farewell parties happening there.

So how do we welcome the new president? A manifesto/petition from the Arts and Culture Sector asks for signatures, and unconsciously highlight the problems that beset the sectors of art and culture in this country. It begs the question: is this as creative as we can get? Within this petition and beyond, the possibilities for real relevant change are stunted by grand plans of unity and agreement, unimaginative assessments of and solutions to our problems, and really, not enough of us looking in the mirror.

We are in a country that barely cares for culture, where governments have practically ignored it, unless it is beneficial to them. One politician might want a biography written, another might find need for a TV or radio show, but for the most part though, culture is left to its own devices, forced to deal with whatever trickles down, good or bad, from the higher offices of government. We keep talking about change and hope for this new government? Well, other than hoping that Kris will now stop selling every product in the face of this third world earth, here’s looking at this kid, that is our culture industry.

Intellectual Property, properly

If we must agree we should on the more crucial aspects of the global and local, and where the injustice lies for the latter. Case in point: intellectual property. Strict implementation of the Intellectual Property Code cuts through the right to education, i.e., students’ right to books that are too expensive, and teachers’ freedom to create syllabi beyond what students can afford.

Are we all in agreement that the photocopying of books is against the law? Then how, pray tell, will we teach our students of literature, not to mention medicine and law, using books published elsewhere but here?

We’d like to think that the literatures we have in this country are enough, that we shouldn’t need any of those Western books to teach literature. The truth is, only an ill-educated teacher (and yes she exists) would think that (and yes plenty of them do). There is value in the literatures of the rest of the world, because it is there that we see how different we are, how the same, how important we still are. Without it, how do we teach our students about the world beyond theirs? How do we even begin to speak of ourselves?

The photocopier has allowed for education in this country since forever. To insist that we follow the IPC hook line sinker is to stunt that education. Any intelligent teacher would know that (and sadly there are few).

Which is the same for the piracy of movies. How many filmmakers, not to mention students of film, can afford the original expensive DVDs of foreign films? When we can get Stanley Kubrick or Quentin Tarantino movies at 60 pesos each, and even local classics like Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang and Scorpio Nights for a little more than 60, how does one rationalize an anti-piracy campaign?  These are valuable films that are now accessible, thanks to our neighborhood dibidee dibidee manangs, which would be too expensive to buy otherwise. Don’t even begin on quality; sometimes it’s the transience of it that’s wonderful, too.

And please don’t tell me that we’re happy not to download songs through the internet, because I cannot imagine anyone refusing that kind of easy access. And yes, that goes for porn, too (anyone who says that isn’t a cultural product is in denial).

Yet we refuse, don’t we, on the level of justice for the victims of piracy. But pray tell, will Metallica truly feel the loss of royalties as we download each of their albums? Will Salman Rushdie care that we are photocopying every page of his Satanic Verses? And as we play that pirated DVD of the recent romantic comedy, will its makers truly feel our illegal consumption at all.

I get how unfair it is for local culture to be pirated just because in this context, it does mean an impoverished artist. But for artists in the first world? If they’re smart they would be thankful that we are listening/watching/reading their works at all, regardless of whether they earn from it or not. Regardless really, of how we get to them. The point has got to be that in third world Philippines we actually do. And it becomes a form of, if not the core of, our education, underground and black market as it is.

Audience, Audience, Audience

Any honest younger member of the culture sector would agree to this about intellectual property: it’s unfair to us, third world academics/scholars/writers/culture workers, to be told that we cannot watch our pirated DVDs of the recent Cannes Film Festival, or listen to our recently downloaded Natalie Merchant CD. And really, if I’m asked about my work being photocopied (as I found that it was being used by the Department of English and Comparative Literature of U.P. for their departmental exams in 2007), I would just be so happy that it isn’t dead in the pages of some old magazine, or expensive book.

Dead being the operative word here, in a country where literature – the kind that’s celebrated by a small group of the literati – barely has readers. Because when people have money for books, they buy those that aren’t considered as “literature”, i.e., Tagalog romances, komiks, self-help. When they can watch movies in the theater, they watch the commercial film and not what we consider as the more intelligent indie films. When they watch a performance, it is of the latest diva doing her high-note-belting rendition of some song that isn’t hers, or of John Lloyd Cruz admitting to his relationship(s), and not a ballet at the Cultural Center of the Philippines or a musical at the Meralco Theater. When they consume the visual arts, it isn’t about new painting(s) in a gallery, as it is art on the streets (billboards, jeepney designs, MMDA art (gasp!).

It is this divide between what we call the “arts and culture sector” and the Pinoy audience that’s rarely talked about, sometimes forgotten, as a matter of survival. After all, if you write a novel in English that’s celebrated by the world, but which isn’t read by a majority of your countrymen, you’d need to pad the insecurity with some forgetfulness. Forget that there is a mass audience that your works don’t reach in this country. Forget that it is possible to tap into this market because other books have. Forget that when you write, produce any form of culture for that matter, there is an amount of self-centeredness, an egotistical take on the fact that few will get it.

Forgetfulness allows for elitism, tons of it. It also allows for choosing the responsibilities you can fulfill, looking at the tiny world that’s between you and your readers, which also only allows for the more puny issues to be dealt with: who publishes what, who’s the newest alaga of which bigshot/old writer, to whom the scepter/crown/cape of creativity will be handed down.  In fact, the bigger more important issue is why. Why can’t we get this mass audience to buy our books, read our works (yes, even when they’re in Filipino), and deal with what we imagine are the more intelligent things we say? Why can’t we dream of actually being that writer, indie filmmaker, underground rakenrol  star, whose name resonates? Not just because it says something, but because it speaks to this mass consumer.

Let’s not kid ourselves that it can’t be done. Because it can. Arundhati Roy, post-Booker Prize for her The God of Small Things, went back to her native India to become the voice of activism, even writing An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (2004). The power of the latter is Roy’s refusal to be dumbed down by the empire(s) the post-/neo-colonial lives with, and her refusal to look at that prize she won as payment for keeping quiet about past and present colonization’s destruction of poorer nations

Closer to home, the writer-as-activist is ignored/let be with a shrug/hung on a noose in turns, as we question their aesthetics, as we are quick to point a finger and say “Marxist! Marxist on the loose!” on the one hand red-baiting as those famous fascists did (that’s Marcos and GMA), on the other saying marxism is dead and what kind of activist aesthetic is this with the all-capped sections?

And then there are those names, the ones that might not appear on the list of plenary speakers to one international conference or other, or might not speak with jargon and heavy words, or have an M.A. or PhD to speak of. These are names that might not be deemed worthy of our studies, might not have books tucked under their belts, and are therefore nothing because they are not us. We forget that our problem really, is that we are not them.

In the midst of the crowds jostling to get their best buy at the Tsinelas Festival happening on the tiny streets of Liliw Laguna, I heard the ate say, “Naku, patay na si Bob Ong! Ang lungkot naman!” The news turned out to be untrue, but the fact of this young tiangge salesgirl in this probinsya mouthing those words, was worth something. That we refuse to deal with it and start working on getting our works read by this majority, is a sad thing. That these would be the same words said upon Caparas’ death or Kris’, is the only other thing that could be sadder.

Where does the change lie? Well, right about here.

*to be continued. Part Two on Professionalization? Unionism! and the Culture of Irrelevance and Apathy.


Posted in: arts and culture, bayan, gobyerno, kultura, panitikan

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