A test of faith

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

I got caught up over the weekend in a really emotional discussion about “Polytheism,” the art installation currently on display until August 21 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. It was a lopsided discussion, with me being the sole person who had an “open mind” about the art installation.

As can be expected, the discussion really didn’t turn out well with two of my friends taking “personal offense” at several issues: First, at what they believed was a blasphemous attack on their faith; Second, at the seeming disrespect for the sensitivities and feelings of many—not all, certainly—Catholics who have made their objections to the art installation; and third, at the blanket denunciation of their inability to see things from a wider, more-encompassing and inclusive perspective.

I was sorely tempted to get personal as well; enough to mention that among everyone present in that discussion I was the only one who actually went to Church every Sunday, read the Bible, went to Baclaran every Wednesday, and did community work in my parish. I was also the one who didn’t mock the hysterical reactions of some people including those who prayed the rosary and sang religious hymns at the CCP complex over the weekend. Not that all these made me the better Christian—I happen to think that becoming one was a lifelong process rather than something that one acquired through blind obedience to dogma—just that one wishes that in heated situations such as the ones we find ourselves in today, people would try not to cast aspersions on other people’s faith and motivations and that everyone would make an effort to see beyond their own blinders and prejudices.

I do respect the views and feelings of my friends and others who think the art installation showing a collage of various images of Jesus Christ and Mother Mary juxtaposed with a movable wooden penis, a pink condom, Mickey Mouse, the Statue of Liberty, United States President Barack Obama, among others, blasphemous and well, disgusting and grotesque. I don ft begrudge them the right to rile about the art installation. By all means, they should be allowed to speak their minds, lambast the installation and the artist, and even the CCP. They are perfectly within their rights if they demand that the installation, which they deem offensive, be taken down. They can mount protests, demonstrations, and scream their hearts out.

But what they must acknowledge, too, is that nobody has the monopoly of truth, wisdom, and freedom. Respect is a two-way street and the whole essence of democracy is precisely that we may not agree with what other people have to say but we should protect their right to say them.

I always cringe when people trundle out the argument that freedom is not absolute, using it as the rationale for saying that anything that offends them should be taken down as if the righteousness of their demand exempts them from the application of the same truism that they are fighting for. They forget that, in this particular case, the artist, the CCP and the people who have rallied around the cause of artistic expression have the same rights and freedoms that they have – that their freedom is not absolute as well.

Freedom is not absolute, yes, which is why no one is stopping them from expressing their anger and their outrage. And if they think they have grounds to do so, they are most welcome to go to court and seek all manner of redress.

A number of people have taken the CCP board to task for allowing the exhibit to be mounted. What people don ft or refuse to acknowledge is that as the vanguard of artistic expression in the country, the CCP would have failed in its most important mandate had it not allowed the exhibit to be mounted. Freedom of expression is unfortunately a concept that is not open to compromise. The long-term consequences of censorship are far more damaging. The very essence of that freedom is respect for those you despise or don ft like. Freedom is not applied to things we like or agree with but precisely for those we are deeply uncomfortable with. Put another way, freedom of expression exists precisely to protect those that offend us.

And contrary to what Imelda Romualdez Marcos thinks, art is not always about the true, the good, and the beautiful. We would all be doing culture a disservice if we limit our appreciation of art to those that make our hearts soar with joy. Art is also meant to provoke, to disturb, to draw out complex emotions from spectators.

What about morality, people ask. There are those who have condemned the art installation for its gblasphemous h and gdisgusting h images and stop there, dismally failing to see through the powerful implications of the images in terms of preaching morality. Oh please, don ft we all use negative characterizations to preach what is right and moral? Our soap operas, plays, and movies rely on the sheer evil of antagonists to deliver powerful messages of redemption. We tell our kids stories of the big bad wolf and of the evil stepsisters to illustrate the power of positive values by contrast. Why can ft we draw parallels in this particular case? Just because something is disgusting and disturbing doesn ft mean it cannot be moral.

The artist, Mideo Cruz, has repeatedly said that he intended the installation to be a commentary on icon worship. gI just hope that when we look at something, the process doesn ft stop at the surface, h he said.

I must admit that I also found the exhibit gdisturbing. h Did the art installation have to be so? Artistic expression is deeply personal and artists use their art to express a specific point of view or message including, yes, gdisgusting g thoughts and emotions, which incidentally are still considered normal. Very often, such an approach is more effective in arousing curiosity and in provoking people into confronting their own feelings and points of views. In this context, the art installation in question works.

This is my personal take on the art installation and this may not be scholarly enough for many, but my discomfort helped me examine my own faith. It is a sad commentary of the times we live in that people have taken icon worship to absurd extremes. For instance, haven ft we all seen religious icons dressed up like dolls, for example, images of the Santo Nino made to appear like policemen, fishermen, even in the image of German Moreno the showman? I fve come across icons of the Virgin Mother dressed up like contestants in a beauty contest, even holding up political slogans and peddling commercial products. Why are saints dressed up in finery and adorned with jewels despite the fact that they lived in utmost poverty and died for their faith? The art installation takes things to extremes to bring home the message – it is art, for crying out loud, no less different from a play shot through with absurd imagery and over-the-top metaphors and symbolism.

I have learned by viewing the exhibit that faith is strongest when put to the test. The icons that we revere are mere representations of the Supreme Being that we worship. When one fs faith is strong and resolute, provocation in the form of disgusting images can only strengthen it further rather than weaken it.

The tragedy is that we live in a country where gfreedom, h gtolerance h and grespect for diversity h are mere theoretical concepts that are embraced only when these suit one fs comfort zone and never in situations when their application would truly matter.


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