What had been a simmering disquiet all this time has turned into a boiling ferment. Last week, persons unknown vandalized Mideo Cruz’s art installation at the CCP and tried—unsuccessfully—to set fire to it.
It’s a complicated issue, or set of issues.
First off, I’d say that as a general principle, one should be respectful of other people’s religious beliefs. One should be appreciative of, or sensitive to, the passions they generate. At the very least that is so because of the catastrophic consequences of not doing so. The capacity of slights to religion, real or imagined, to cause mayhem, or even war, is plentifully in evidence.
That was the reason I said then that although I applauded Carlos Celdran’s Damaso act, I worried about the precedent it set. I didn’t particularly mind that he trashed the clergy—he was simply following in Rizal’s footsteps there—but I minded that he did it during a religious service in a church. As I said then, what if some batty anti-Muslim tried the same stunt in the mosque in Quiapo to protest the Abu Sayyaf? The implications are scary.
Look at the scale of mayhem Terry Jones threatened to unleash by his plan to burn 200 Korans at Ground Zero last 9/11. The government had to step in and tell him to cease and desist.
The point is simple: You want to denigrate imams, feel free to do so. You want to make fun of bishops, feel free to do so. But you want to denigrate Islam, or Mohammed, or the Koran, think again. You want to make fun of Christianity, Christ, or the Bible, think again.
Second off, the problem though is when art and religion intersect. Specifically the problem is where art ends and religion begins, or where religion ends and art begins. Those two have had a long history of enmity.
A huge part of the problem is that religion will always have its share of fanatics ready to burn heretics at the stake at the slightest provocation. I recall that some years ago, many Catholics were calling for a boycott of “The Golden Compass” because its “Magisterium” looked like the Catholic Church in all its inquisitorial fury. I mean, Jesus Christ (pardon my French), ban “The Golden Compass”?
Just as well, Nikos Kazantzakis’s, “The Last Temptation of Christ” continues to be among the banned books in many places. The movie had its share of controversy, many Christians calling as well for a boycott of it. A sublime irony given that “The Last Temptation” is so passionately spiritual, so resolutely—if unorthodoxly—Christian. The last temptation quite incidentally is not wealth or power or Mary Magdalene, it is a quiet, peaceful, ordinary life. That was the last bait Satan laid out before Christ: In lieu of dying on the Cross, an ordinary life. Truly the biggest temptation of all for those who are blessed, or cursed, with a sense of destiny.
Arguably, Cruz’s works are nothing as subtle or tame. They are in-your-face, which is by no means metaphorical, the most derided installation piece being the face of Christ with a phallus for a nose. That is guaranteed to provoke a violent reaction among believers. Cruz himself argues that he has no intention of disparaging faith and has no control over the way people interpret his works. But I doubt many are going to see them as not highly incendiary.
My own quibble is that they are counterproductive. I agree that art is there to disturb, unsettle, shock. But to do so in a way that makes people think about, or rethink, themselves and the world. Cruz’s “RH series” does the opposite. It does not open minds, it closes them. It shocks in a way that makes its audience not to think, just lash out.
A pity because Cruz is an artist and social satirist of no mean talent. I particularly like his works that show a man dressed to the nines, surrounded by the trappings of gentility, about to feast on a table of trash. That shocks, but it also reshapes your thoughts. At least it gives rise to discussions about artistic merit and social realities. If Cruz’s “RH series” is also meant for a larger audience and not just the crowd that drifts to the Cultural Center of the Philippines, if it is meant for the here and now and not just for posterity, then it does not. Artistic merit is the last thing it will draw attention to. Social realities are the last thing it will spark a debate over.
Lastly, the reaction. My position is this: You want to rail against Cruz’s works as heretical, sacrilegious, insulting to Christianity, feel free to do so. You want to call for a boycott of them, feel free to do so—though asking Filipinos to boycott an art exhibit is like asking Filipinos to boycott a bookstore. You want to call Cruz a pervert, a monster, a Satanist, feel free to do so.
But you want to deface his works (or him), you want to burn his works (or him), think again. You want to incite violence, or condone violence, think again. You want to call upon the CCP officials to resign, or risk mayhem against their persons, think again.
Last I looked, we were still a democracy. Last I looked, we still practiced tolerance. I grant there should be limits to free expression. You may not flash the dirty finger in public, as Rodrigo Duterte is wont to do, or the very thing the dirty finger is meant to represent, to say “f–k you” at the world. You may not piss on the flag in public to say you are pissed off with this country or its leaders. I myself do not think Cruz’s “RH series” belongs to this box, it is an attempt to say something serious, however what it has to say discombobulates the faithful. But I leave that for another day. Suffice it to say here that whatever your reaction to it, you may not include violence among them.
You wreak that, or condone it, what does that say about your beliefs? You wreak that, or condone it, what does that say about your religion?