There has been a lot of controversy about the art exhibit called Poleteismo by artist Mideo Cruz at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Cruz says that the exhibit is about “how religion has been commodified and how capitalist commerce has become the new religion”. But many Catholics did not pay too much attention to the overall message of the exhibit, but to the penis on the cross. The exhibit also showed Jesus with a clown’s nose and Mickey Mouse ears. They said that this was blasphemous – I wonder which shocked them more, the penis on the cross, or Jesus with a clown’s nose? . After all the furor, the board of the CCP decided to ‘temporarily’ close the exhibit.
I fully understand that some people found Poleteismo distasteful or ugly. After all, if I was an art collector, I probably wouldn’t want to buy such works of art – they are not to my taste, to say the least. But to ban it, or to persecute the CCP for exhibiting it, is way too much, an arrogant abuse of power.
But it seems that undue political pressure had been put on the CCP board to discontinue the exhibit. President PNoy Aquino for one, called the board to tell them that he disapproved of the exhibit. Then there were senators calling for cutting the budget for the CCP over this incident. I think the politicians have gone too far. They go even further than the official censors (i.e. those who censor motion pictures). At least the motion picture censors have the excuse that some movie scenes are a bad influence on children, thus explicit sex or graphic violence is not allowed by them. But in the CCP case, the censorship was not really a question of public morals, but rather ‘blasphemy’.
Blasphemy is defined as “irreverence toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, and beliefs”. It is an ancient offense, which brings to our mind an ancient scene of a man stoned because he said that the Bible was not literally true, or the miracles are fake. Blasphemy is always the charge against people with a different view of religion.
In modern times, blasphemy is illustrated more by the uproar against the Danish newspaper which published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in 2005. Danish embassies were burned, Danish products were boycotted, and there were terrorist plans to kill people connected to the newspaper (luckily, the police were able to stop these).
There is also the anti-blasphemy law in Pakistan, which is a law that persecutes Christians there. If a Christian has a conflict with a Muslim, the Muslim could simply claim that the Christian said something bad against Muslims, and then the Christian gets sentenced to death. Politicians in Pakistan who spoke out against this law have been assassinated.
I think the basis of blasphemy as a reason to ban, to suppress, or to kill somebody should be left in the Dark Ages. Citing blasphemy in the present-day Philippines only underscores our being a feudal and backward country.
Freedom of Expression
The suppression of ‘blasphemous’ art such as Poleteismo is a dark day for freedom in the Philippines. Freedom of expression boils down to the freedom to express contrary views. If people only had the ‘freedom to express’ things that are approved by the authorities, then it is not freedom at all. Even in a dictatorship, there is always the freedom to express pro-government opinions or views.
The question of whether the CCP, being government supported, should promote such ‘blasphemous’ art should be answered in the affirmative. The government should be the guarantor of the freedom of expression, instead of acting as a censor.
The country has everything to gain by protecting the freedom of expression – it would unleash the creativity of our artists, writers, movie makers, etc. The creative spirit could help Philippine economic development. The creative spirit is not nurtured by succumbing to the disapproval by church elders or the wife of our former dictator.
If you go around European art musea, you will notice that there was a long period where the only art was religious art or portraits – things that are absolutely non-controversial and non-blasphemous. Art then was extremely boring, and not beautiful. Then, there came the time when art took on other topics, many of which were scandalous. Some of these ‘scandalous’ art (e.g. nudes) was even beautiful, but the important thing was that a lot of other art got made, which would not have been the case if the tight censorship by the church had continued to prevail.
So, the question is: Do we want the Philippines to progress and be open to new ideas, or do we want it to remain a backward, feudal country?