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Defending nude painting and ‘Pinoy Big Brother’

01:37 AM June 18, 2014

Does the uproar over the nude-painting challenge of “Pinoy Big Brother” defend women from exploitation? Or does it entrench a superficial modesty to the detriment of both women and art? The furor is sadly one-sided and uncritical, with PBB publicly apologizing in the face of the religion and morality card and a Movie and Television Review and Classification Board probe.

PBB is a reality show where contestants confined in a house under “Kuya” or Big Brother try to outlast each other. Jayme Jalandoni was challenged to model for a nude-painting session. Refusing challenges leads to penalties and Kuya intensely pressured her to accept. Citing religion, she refused to model nude and said, “Patayin niyo na lang ako (Just kill me).” PBB considered her emotional turmoil entertainment. The MTRCB considered it psychological violence.

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But does the latter conclusion necessarily imply that nude painting is inherently immoral? Consider that PBB contestants necessarily agree, in exchange for the benefits of winning, to be subjected to pressure and even emotional manipulation. Thus, the issue is not pressure per se, but improper pressure. It seems pressuring Jayme to eat fried kuliglig (locusts) is acceptable, but pressuring her to model for a nude painting is not. How is this line drawn?

Consider that Jayme was not pressured to lasciviously disrobe for a drooling audience, which would clearly have been vulgar. We were not told whether the painting session would be televised or whether only the finished painting would be shown, and we do not have enough information to criticize the manner in which the session was to be depicted. Further, no one explained how exactly nude painting offended her religious beliefs. Perhaps we would have a richer debate had the session actually taken place. Is the criticism too sweeping and too uncritical that it risks implying that nude painting is inherently immoral?

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The line between art and pornography will always be indeterminate given society’s changing tastes, but free speech demands that we suffer a little pornography rather than risk losing a little art. At the turn of the 18th century, Francisco Goya painted “La maja desnuda,” depicting a naked woman reclining on a bed, facing and boldly staring at the viewer. The painting was scandalous in its time and Goya was hauled before the Spanish Inquisition. In 1930, the United States returned all mail with Spanish stamps reproducing the painting in Goya’s honor. Today, however, “La maja desnuda” is one of Spain’s greatest treasures and one of the most viewed paintings in Madrid’s legendary Museo del Prado. Seeing it, I was immediately struck by the strength of the woman’s gaze and the glow of her skin, and lamented what a crime it would have been had the Inquisition destroyed it. And nudes are not just female; the Prado’s crucified Christs by Goya and his predecessor, master Diego Velazquez, are likewise marvelous.

Sadly, PBB and its critics alike could have treated nude painting with the sensitivity our artists accord it. Cultural Center of the Philippines Thirteen Artists awardee Jaypee Samson shares, “Ang turo kasi sa fine arts, huwag tingnan ang nude model bilang nude; sa halip, tingnan ito bilang bagay na ipipinta. (We are taught in fine arts classes not to view the nude model as a nude but as a subject to be painted.)” UP College of Fine Arts valedictorian and noted book illustrator Rommel Joson describes: “When I draw nudes, it becomes a study of light and form. The animal part of my brain truly turns off. Drawing from life is judging proportions, measuring things in your mind, and judging angles and curves.” Multiawarded Salingpusa painter Jim Orencio stresses that nude painting is a strictly private—certainly not televised—affair carefully discussed with the model.

It is sad when undue morality judgments are overlaid. “Maraming tunggalian sa pagitan ng mga prinsipyo at pangunawa, tunggalian sa kung ano ang tama at mali sa larangan ng sining (There are many conflicts between principles and understanding, between right and wrong in art),” adds Archie Oclos, a Philippine Collegian artist turned professional painter. “Hindi sana laging nauungkat ang sa kung ano ang tama o mali base sa relihiyon, nalilihis sa ibang bagay [ang usapan] (I wish right and wrong based on religion would not always come up, as conversations become sidetracked).” Reinforcing an uncritical view of modesty may diminish women even more and lock them in a 19th-century Maria Clara stereotype. Consider that thousands of Iranian women made anonymous submissions to a Facebook page for photos of themselves without their hijab (veil).

Multiawarded Sangviaje member Japs Antido laments, “Some viewers are too sensitive regarding nude painting and lack artistic appreciation,” though he stresses that art should never be a pretext to pressure a woman. Archie ends, “Dapat ang media mismo ang nangungunang magpakita ng pagiging responsible bilang isang institusyon ng lipunan. (Media itself must lead in being responsible as an institution in society.)”

When our generation produces a Filipino Goya or Velazquez, one hopes we will exalt his nude paintings as glorious celebrations of the human form, and no one will tell children to cover their eyes. Ferdie Montemayor, another CCP Thirteen Artists awardee, sarcastically jokes, “Mabuti na rin na malaman ng madlang pipol na mangmang pa rin sila. (It would be good for the masses to learn that they remain insufficiently educated.)”

Oscar Franklin Tan (@oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan) cochairs the Philippine Bar Association Committee on Constitutional Law and teaches at the University of the East.

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TAGS: “La maja desnuda”, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Diego Velazquez, Ferdie Montemayor, Francisco Goya, Jaypee Samson, Movie and Television Review and Classification Board, Museo del Prado, Nude-Painting, painting, Pinoy Big Brother, Spanish Inquisition, Thirteen Artists awardee
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