When art irritates religion

Mideo Cruz’s work “Poleteismo,” which was exhibited at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, has polarized public opinion so sharply that any commentary, if it is to have any value, is expected to weigh in on the pressing question of who is right and who is wrong. I hope that some room can be made for a non-moral, non-legal and non-aesthetic appraisal that looks at this controversy as symptomatic of the structural and semantic shifts that our society is undergoing in its transition to modernity.

Let us briefly review the current shape of the debate. On one side are those who strongly feel that Cruz has overstepped the limits of his rights as an artist by portraying symbols venerated in Christianity in a highly disrespectful and mocking manner. On the other side are those who believe that Cruz is well within his constitutional rights as an artist to express his ideas as he sees fit, and that the CCP is to be applauded for giving him space in accordance with its mandate to promote art. Still others argue that “Poleteismo” is mediocre art that relies on shock effect to call attention to itself, and that it does not deserve to be exhibited at the CCP.

How does one make sociological sense of this controversy? The work in question is a small part of the exhibit “Kulo” that was mounted by alumni artists of the University of Santo Tomas to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Jose Rizal. Cruz takes up as his subject the growing diversity in the values of our people. This “polytheism,” as he rightly calls it, is represented by the absurd juxtaposition of the things we desire, admire, worship, patronize or fear. In this cultural collage of new and old icons, the authority of religion is interrogated, if not entirely displaced, by the fetishism of consumer goods and the cult of power and celebrity. A work like this succeeds to the extent that it is able to draw viewers into a sustained contemplation that, in the best encounters with art, triggers a questioning of the viewer’s own sensibility. But “Poleteismo’s” theme is probably one of the most common in the art world. So conventional is it that the biggest challenge for the artist is probably how to avoid the clichés that obstruct intuition.

Art is a distinct form of communication that occupies an important place in evolving societies like ours. Of all the domains of human communication, it is probably the most vulnerable to interference by the other social spheres. Its struggle for autonomy has been a difficult one. In the old societies, it could only flourish by becoming the servant of the monarchy and the church. In modern society, it is usually powerless to resist the dictates of the market. It can hardly protect itself from the whims of political power. And indeed it has had a hard time standing above the moral squabbles of any given period.

Yet what art does for society is at least as important as politics, religion, science, law or the economy. Its function is to express meanings through images and representations that cannot easily be captured or rendered in ordinary language. It is able to do this by an act of intuition, through which it unmasks the “illusionism of the world” and transcends what is immediately given in perception. In this sense, it “irritates” (to borrow a term from Niklas Luhmann) the forms of life that we create for ourselves by framing and holding them up for scrutiny in the light of what is possible.

Like any other subsystem in modern society, art performs its social function best when it can create and sustain itself guided solely by its own unique code. This suggests a duty to preserve and fortify whatever autonomy it enjoys in society. In societies like ours that are in transition between the old and the new, art’s place is far from secure. It sometimes finds itself risking hard-won positions in brief skirmishes, instead of preparing for a long-term war of survival. This happens because, in self-defense, art tends to close itself to what is happening in the other systems of society. It knows very well how to irritate them, but it is usually oblivious of what these other systems can do to disrupt its operations.

It is good for the art system to invoke constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression. But, it cannot hope to secure its autonomy by free-riding on the legal system. Even judges are swayed by public opinion. How much freedom an artist can exercise is ultimately a political question. And, on this issue, going by what our political leaders have said so far, it does not seem as if they are taking a liberal view of the matter.

Thus, we can appreciate Richard A. Posner’s caution against what he terms “rights fetishism”—in which “(R)ights, particularly constitutional rights, are treated as Platonic forms, universalized and eternalized, or as trumps that take every trick no questions asked, rather than as tools of government subject to the usual trade-offs …”

Art in our society has little choice but to patiently carve out a place for itself in a social environment that still regards artworks as marginal to human communication. A good part of this effort entails knowing how to balance assertion and restraint while strengthening its authority within its own domain. This rule of thumb applies to the other systems as well, including the more established ones—religion, politics, the mass media, law, the economy, etc. Their autonomy ultimately rests on their ability to position themselves in a differentiated society without provoking concerted intervention from the others.