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August 16, 2011

A Footnote on Jose Javier Reyes' Footnote on Mideo

With the ongoing Senate hearing on the controversial "Kulo" exhibit recently hosted by the CCP, which included Mideo Cruz's provocative "Poletiesmo" installation, it is apparent that the issue has yet to die down. I have been reading blogs and reactions from both sides regarding this supposed artwork and although I have not personally seen the installation in its entirety, I have seen photos of the Mideo installation which featured the use of religious symbols associated with the Christian faith, particularly the Catholic Church, juxtaposed with other less reverent symbols such as a condom hanging around a cross or a penis attached to the face of Jesus Christ, believed by billions to be The Messiah or God Himself. Among the many blogs I read, I came upon Jose Javier Reyes' blog entitled "A Footnote on Mideo". Jose Javier Reyes is an award-winning director in the Philippines. He writes, "This issue has been the subject of heated discussions in every available medium joined in by anybody who feels qualified to talk about art and the freedom of expression." The issue on Freedom of expression has definitely been placed in the crux of the issue. For the so-called "moralists and the last of vestal virgins" (as referred by Jose Javier Reyes), the Mideo installation was no less blasphemous, sacrilegious and offensive. To the many self-professed artists, professional or otherwise, the Mideo installation was nothing more than just an exercise of Mideo's freedom of artistic expression.

Direk Reyes then pointed out at least four points which obviously point to his concurrence with the latter. Direk Reyes's first point, "I would like to believe that we still live in a democracy. And as far as I remember we are not called the Catholic Republic of the Philippines. Although it is only fair to show mutual respect to all icons, images, rituals and ideas venerated by all existing faiths within a nation, there is such a thing as choice which makes all the difference because, as I said … we are supposedly in a democracy"

In his first point, I cannot help but notice the inconsistencies of his argument. While it is true that this is not "the Catholic Republic of the Philippines", that is not actually the point of the "Kulo" Issue. In fact, Direk Reyes pointed out that it is "only fair to show mutual respect to all icons, images, rituals and ideas venerated by all existing faiths within a nation". I think that is the more medial issue of the controversy. How Free is your freedom of expression? By writing this thought and then contradicting it with a continuing phrase "there is such a thing as choice..." blurs the point Direk Reyes is trying to drive. Or maybe what Direk Reyes is trying to say is while it is important to show respect to the beliefs and articles of such beliefs of other people, regardless whether they are Catholics or Muslims or Buddhists, it is still your choice to show or not show that respect. After all we are "in a democracy" as he wrote. If that is the case, then let me go back to my first point, "How Free is your Freedom?" What many failed to realize, and I am not just referring to artists but the population in general, is that our freedoms are not absolute.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights under Article 19 states that while any one "shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice", such a right carries with it "special duties and responsibilities" and therefore must "be subject to certain restrictions" when necessary for "respect of the rights or reputation of others... or for the protection of national security or of public order or of public health or morals".

Mideo therefore has every right to express himself, as any other common tao, religious or not, however, that does not mean Mideo can express himself by any means without regard for the sensibilities and reputation of other people or groups of people.

Direk Reyes then pointed out another thought saying, "Given the fact that we have choices, the controversial Mideo Cruz chose to express himself in a manner that sent convulsions and volcanic explosions to the sensitivities and sensibilities of the Catholics. Understandably so. Mideo had a choice to shock and scandalize --- the viewer also had a choice to look and react as well as look away and be repulsed. In other words, whether you liked or hated Mideo's work, you still had a choice to gape at it or scream at it … or boycott it." Again, while this point has been pretty much addressed by the first argument, another issue which many have failed to see is that the exhibition was done in a public area, the Cultural Center of the Philippines. So, it is not the manner of expression that is the issue here, whether Mideo chose to express himself in the most volcanic, explosive or whatever synonymously shocking adjective Direk Reyes and Mideo would like to use. The second issue here is "Where can you Express your freedom?" Since we are clear that the practice of our freedoms require certain restrictions in order to ensure that it is expressed responsibly, included in the restriction is the venue of your expression. Thus, it can be likened to a peaceful rally our brave activists would perform on our highways and streets, which require a permit from the local authorities to do so. The permit is not a permit to grant them freedom to rally, but the permit is a permit to grant them the use of the road which belongs to no one except the people with the government as the trusted caretaker of such a public property. In the same way, when the CCP decided to open host the exhibit inside a publicly-owned hall, the government must be responsible for the exhibit's impact on the general population. Jose Javier Reyes would focus only on the reaction of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church but he fails to include that not only the bishops, priests and "friars" who are "scandalized" by the exhibit but the ordinary person as well, both the devout and the non-practicing Catholic.

The government has the responsibility to protect its people, not only its people's physical integrity but also and equally important its people's emotional and moral integrity. Thus, while you are free to go naked for a day while inside your house, you are not free to do so while you are outside right at the central plaza of your town. By doing so, you will be jailed for indecent exposure. While you are free to make love to your spouse within the private confines of your house, you are not free to do the same passionate act outside of your house for public viewing. By doing so, you will be jailed for public indecency. Why such the existence of laws that seem to be restricting my freedom of expression? Because the government has an obligation to protect the general population from any scandalous, obscene and racially or morally offensive acts. That is why Direk Reyes's soft porn "Toro" was banned in many cinemas because it showed such scenes that can be morally scandalous and offensive. And not because we are a Catholic Nation. It is because we are rational human beings, plain and simple. If Mideo therefore opted to make an exhibit right inside his house or inside a private gallery, it could have been a no-brainer or a non-issue. But since he opted to expose his work in a public gallery, he could have been more sensitive.

Thus, what he did could have been likened to putting a Penis on Allah's face or Mohammed's face or putting a condom around Buddha's neck.

Direk Reyes's third point, "When you don't like something, it does not mean that nobody else should have the chance to either like it or hate it. Yes, as some critics pointed out, whether Mideo Cruz created art or trash is something for the academicians, literati and art scholars to discuss. Yes, as more critics voiced out, this was mounted by the government-run Cultural Center of the Philippines --- a sanctuary meant to preserve and celebrate the best of our cultura. Now can we actually call Cruz's works a reflection of our culture? Uhm, why not? Agreement and conformity are not the only measures of culture, right? Are we really back to "The Good, The True and The Beautiful"? Rebellion and reaction stand on equal grounds"...well, I would not even bother arguing this because it has once again failed to nail the point. The point is not really about the style of art or the genre of the artist or whether Mideo's artwork was really art or crap. The point really is, "Where do you draw the line?" As what G.K. Chesterton once said, "Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere."

Assuming that Mideo's motivation was to display a critique of our society's "polytheistic" lifestyle ranging from religion to commerce, Mideo could have opted to express such "motivation" in a manner that is still provocative but without the scandalous and offensive use of objects and symbols that for one particular religion are more than just objects and symbols. Whether you are a believer or not is not the issue. For the Catholic Religion, these sacred arts are part of their religious ceremonies, their rituals, their way of connecting to the Divine. In the same way the Koran is precious to the Muslims and the Cows are sacred to Hindus. Because we are a democracy, it is imperative that we show tolerance and respect. The problem is, we demand such tolerance and respect only from the devout. Those who are "non-believers" must equally show the tolerance and respect they demand from these so-called "zealots".

Direk Reyes ended his blog with an admission that "I also agree that freedom of expression demands responsibility and accountability. But that does not give license of anybody or any institution to blind, deafen, mangle or render speechless ideas that do not conform to the norm … or become a standard because of the power in numbers of followers. For Mideo, he has learned that: "buntot mo, hila mo". He believed in what he did … and now he, together with other artists, must fight not only for their rights but for their dignity." Unfortunately, Direk Reyes, since our freedoms are not absolute, there has to be an authority that would "regulate" such freedoms, or else, ours will no longer be a democracy but a mobocracy. When the exhibit was closed, CCP was only doing its mandate which has emanated from the people who are paying the taxes that allow exhibits like Mideo's to be mounted in CCP and the same people who overwhelmingly agreed that Mideo's work was definitely offensive and scandalous, Catholic or not.

The government has every duty and obligation to regulate our freedoms. The government may have stopped the exhibit but it only stopped CCP from hosting the exhibit. Should Mideo wish to display his exhibit somewhere else, the government at large will not and could not stop him. Should there be other groups who, after seeing Mideo's exhibit displayed either in a public or private gallery, wish to file charges against the artist for allegedly violating the Revised Penal Code, then the courts shall decide on that. Still, an authority exists that would regulate and decide what conforms and does not conform to our social norms. What Direk Reyes and others may have failed to see is that the pressure did not just come from "institutions" like the Church. While the church hierarchy may have been the most vocal, that does not mean that they were the only ones showing such opposition.

Art is a precious gift. I have been to museums and other art exhibits both in the country and abroad and I have seen a lot of wonderful art works, from the ancient world to the Renaissance to the contemporary. Art is definitely a precious element in our society. And so is our faith or even the lack thereof.

It was also G.K. Chesterton who said, "Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame."

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