What’s the greater terror?
Confronting something we don’t understand or recognizing the unspeakable that’s familiar?
In its brief, interrupted public engagement, the Mideo Cruz exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) revealed a glimpse of ourselves.
However its merits or demerits are perceived, this was art that fulfilled what may be its creator’s intention: it agitated.
Last Aug. 9, the CCP Board closed down the Cruz exhibit, citing the “increasing number of threats to persons and property” sent via letters, text messages and emails and directed at the artist and the CCP officers.
Entitled “Kulo,” the Cruz exhibit was immediately denounced by outraged visitors and even those who only viewed selected images from the exhibit broadcast through TV reports.
“Sacrilegious” and “blasphemous” were hurled at the art pieces, which include a crucifix with a penis and a Christ the King figure with rabbit ears.
Aside from groups that picketed the CCP, Christian groups threaten lawsuits against Cruz and the CCP for violating a law against “immoral doctrines, obscene publications and indecent shows”.
The CCP’s decision to close the exhibit came also after a couple vandalized some of the art works and tried to set fire to the exhibit.
As I told a friend who recently asked me about my stance regarding this incident, I cannot fairly comment on the exhibit of Mideo Cruz as I have not been to the CCP, walked around the art pieces, and compared what may be the artist’s vision with my gut reaction as spectator or participant.
To evaluate a body of works through isolated images, specially sieved through news accounts of the controversy brewing around these, is not to view and react to the art or the artist but to witness the trial, sentencing and lynching of the Artist pitted against Community, of Anomaly versus Convention, of Freedom of Expression versus Religion.
For such bloodless concepts, the reactions they elicit among us are disproportionately violent.
In 2006, after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed caricatures of the prophet Muhammad made by 12 cartoonists, riots rocked the Muslim world for weeks. At least 19 people were reported killed. A Pakistani cleric issued a fatwa and announced a $1-million bounty for the killing of the “blasphemous” cartoonists.
Although the Danish newspaper apologized to Muslims, other dailies in Europe and the US published the cartoons, asserting these had “news value” and defending the right of freedom of expression.
Why not walk away from disagreements? Why escalate the breakdown of communication with revenge and violence?
The questions left unanswered in the Jyllands-Posten caricatures case reverberate even after “Kulo” has been closed down by the CCP.
Praying before icons in one church, I noticed how smaller icons were left at the foot of statues. These odd pieces looked old and chipped, as if they belonged to families for ages or were frequently handled or rubbed by devotees.
I thought such icons were left to “absorb” grace from the bigger statues before these were claimed again by their owners. A friend corrected me, explaining that these were statues abandoned by those who switched religious allegiances and no longer honored the Virgin Mary or the Sto. Niño.
Were these icons thrown away by the church caretakers? My friend said that parishioners eventually “adopted” and brought them home.
This remembered traffic in recycling belief—“I don’t want it; take it if you want it”—seems to hold a lesson or two about perceptions and tolerance.
The function of art is to unsettle. Beauty is disquieting but even more so is ugliness.
Should we break the mirror because we don’t like what it reflects back to us?
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s August 14, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” column