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Uploaded November 16, 2015
STARRED MESSAGES: The first Critical Platforms forum
The State of Philippine Art Writing
According to Six Art Writers
a diskurso.com-covered forum
text by Jojo Soria de Veyra
camcorder photography by de Veyra, Miguel Antonio Roxas de Veyra and Gabriel Luis Roxas de Veyra
IT might have been last August 1's If Art Is a Hammer forum at Artery Art Space, which diskurso art channel also covered, that prompted or inspired Art+ magazine editor Duffie Hufana Osental to hold a forum of his own, this time on a subject closest to his and his staff's position in the art community. Osental was one of those invited to act as a panelist in If Art Is a Hammer, presented by the Concerned Artists of the Philippines organization and the Planting Rice curatorial platform. The forum was about political art today and artivism platforms.
Osental was quick to implement what was to be Art+'s first forum production. As early as August 3, I already received an email from Marz Aglipay, Art+'s editorial coordinator, inviting me to be one of the speakers in said planned forum that seemed to already have a title: Critical Platforms: A Forum on Art Criticism in the Philippines. Seemingly, also. Art+ already had the event scheduled for October 17 at the UP Vargas Museum.
And so, realized that quickly and not at all surprisingly, came the day. Many came to fill the hall, even as Typhoon Koppu (Lando) threatened to ruin the date. Diskurso Art Magazine's YouTube channel covered the event with a camcorder, but sans a tripod, the reason why you must pardon the camera shakiness, especially that shakiness care of my kids when I had to join the second session's panel (not to mention the waviness on certain frames and lessened resolution overall resulting from the Movie Maker editor's stabilization feature that tried but failed to get rid of the shakiness).
". . . answered the forum question about 1) the state of art criticism in the Philippines today and 2) the role of writers, editors and publishers in advancing art criticism . . ."
Critical Platforms I, Part 1 or 1st Session
THE first session of the Art+ forum tried to tackle challenges for, and opportunities in, art criticism in the country today. Moderated by Art+ magazine's editor himself, it presented Cid Reyes (noted senior art critic, author and painter), Reuben Ramas Cañete (UP Asian Center-based art critic and author), and Patrick Duarte Flores (art critic, author, international curator and UP Vargas Museum resident curator) on the panel. (After the session, Reyes had two small paintings of his raffled off to the audience.)
Now, to offer a sort of inspiration to writers in the audience, it was Reyes who scanned the landscape of Philippine art critical history and enumerated some of the notable art critics from the postwar era on to the present. He started with the fiction writer Franz Arcellana, whose criticism Reyes briefly described while mentioning some names that the writer covered. Reyes also talked about the lure of other fields, in Arcellana's case his other passion, fiction, which prevented a furtherance of the writer's career as an art critic.
Other names Reyes mentioned as comprising the roster of our "ancestors" included novelist and essayist Nick Joaquin, Fernando M. Zóbel (who also held workshops in art appreciation), Leonidas Benesa (author of What Is Philippine About Philippine Art? and Other Essays), Eric Torres, Rodolfo Paras Perez (author of Jeepney), Emilio Aguilar Cruz, Jesus Peralta, Alfredo Roces (who also painted), Ray Albano, poet and artist Larry Francia, later National Commission for Culture and the Arts chairman Jaime C. Laya, painter J. Elizalde Navarro (after whom a University of Santo Tomas art critical workshop was named), University of the Philippines art history professor Alice C. Guillermo (author of Social Realism in the Philippines and whose writing Reyes described as "very political"), Santiago "Jak" Pilar (author of a book on Juan Luna), Paul Zafaralla, and younger critics including Marian Pastor Roces, Jack Sotto, Jolico Cuadra, Manuel Duldulao (author of Contemporary Philippine Art and publisher), himself (author of Conversations on Philippine Art---a book of interviews with a wide range of artists from A to Z, starting with Lee Aguinaldo and Federico Aguilar Alcuaz and ending with Zóbel), historian Ambeth Ocampo, Boots Herrera, Ana Labrador, now-auctioneer Richie Lerma, Jeannie Javelosa, University of the Philippines Fine Arts professor Ruben de Feo, Leovino Garcia, artist Jose Tence Ruiz, Eileen Legaspi Ramirez, and his co-panelists that day, Cañete and Flores. Perhaps to highlight their notability, Reyes closed his narration with the projected slide asking the question, "Who's The Next Big Thing?"
Now, although the older Reyes continues to practice criticism today, it was the younger Cañete who he gave the job of describing how it is to be an accessible art critic in our era, especially in the popular media. Cañete focused on his own experiences. While he narrated how opportunities presented themselves to him, he also laid on the table the challenge in being able to choose one's subjects. Then he went on to describe what to him "quality writing" means independent of academic jargon, which he believes is possible. But he also complained about editors' demand upon him to avoid discussing the aesthetic aspects of works, as these are where jargon would tend to come in (jargon that serious discussion of these aspects requires); on this handicap, well, "apparently this is what Philippine mass media wants," he could only say. "Fortunately" for him, he added, he also has access to the academic media. And as regards that other medium, the exhibition catalog, he said, "they don't really care what you write, unless you write something very funny about them." :)
Then came Flores, who was to tackle the question of what art criticism is and how important it is to the art community. First citing Carlos Quirino's foreword to an Alicia Coseteng book, he then added more names to Cid Reyes' earlier presentation of previous art writers, including in the roster the names of José Rizal (who wrote on Juan Luna and Félix Resurrección Hidalgo), Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, and so on. He described the period of Zóbel as "the humanities turn," or the study of human culture stage. But to Flores, it was Rod Paras Perez who brought into the picture the discipline of art history. Then he stated his belief that the art writer today is overburdened with various roles: he has to be art historian, art critic and, in his case, curator at the same time. He wished society would provide additional personnel to these distinct fields of specialization. As to the importance of art criticism, he said it's there for the function of either explaining, provoking, or validating. While it mediates between the world and the history of art and the feel of art as object, it also presents itself as itself, as writing, as literature.
During the Q&A portion of the session, in answer to a question about art critics with PhDs versus Internet critics, Cid Reyes had no protestations about the free-for-all atmosphere of art criticism in/from the Internet. His only request: that the prose of art bloggers, for instance, be less wanting of polish, which shortchange can distract readers from what may actually be good insights! . . . Patrick Flores, meanwhile, wanted to know the publics the writer is engaging with in the social media, and was particular about the various contexts of words in the logosphere of these blogosphere publics. Armed with such a question, he seemed to say, the critic can know whether he shall engage with a certain public or all publics and choose therefrom. This choice is crucial to the writer, who may take on, or refuse to engage with, the ignorant. At the same time, Flores warned us of the temptations of marketing interests, which have been co-opting art writers for a world of simplifications. He confessed that "it's been a problem for me" himself in his writing about art, in contrast to the ease of it when he writes about film; perhaps it's because the lexicon of film happens to be more familiar and popular? He cited the controversy around Mideo Cruz's Poleteismo installation art piece as one case study of a social media-based discussion about an artwork that was not necessarily an art discussion. . . . For his take on the question, Reuben Cañete described the Internet as a medium wherein various fields in the social nexus get into art even while viewing it from without. Then he upheld traditional media's (including art media's) efforts to in turn adopt the Internet's networks, so that traditional media can be present there.
To another question, which tried to dig deeper into the relevance of art writing in museum exhibitions and museum audience development, Cid Reyes averred that information about, as well as critical insights upon, works of art---e.g. those provided by museums on their walls---are crucial to the information-hungry faced with visual data they may have difficulty making heads or tails of. Therein already is audience development. He added that such information data become even more crucial in the exhibition of more peculiar visual works produced by intellectual discourses from art history. . . . Reuben Cañete, for his part, offered that curatorial writing might be the more apt sort of writing for museum exhibitions since it is what provides both a critical appreciation of, and an informational layer to, the show's value, almost above the personal takes that critics are wont to produce. This discipline creates some sort of mediation above the free-for-all views of the democratic world, and in turn helps the museum narrow its audience development target. . . . Patrick Flores added to these views with a campaign for the articulation of the intent: first, the audience target has to be conceptualized, he said, and then has to be produced by some shepherding act. He submitted, though, that this can be very hard when it comes to contemporary art products, with all their references, wherein the writer, if wise, would have to find the language that both fulfills the requirements of the art and the requirements of accessibility/intelligibility. With the latter point on accessibility, however, he added that there is likewise the writer's responsibility to make sure he gets to produce that kind of audience that does not rely on information but is eager to meet the aesthetic lexicon halfway.
FOR the second session, Art+'s forum wanted to know more about the role of art magazine/pages editors and/or publishers in advancing art criticism in the Philippines' art industry. Moderated by Cid Reyes, this section of the forum had in its panel Carlomar Arcangel Daoana (Philippine Star resident art critic), Sam Marcelo (BusinessWorld High Life associate editor), and myself (Jojo Soria de Veyra).
Daoana's brief talk, titled Expanding Spaces for Art Criticism, narrated The Philippine Star's contribution to this art critical community's desire for expansion; a modest contribution, perhaps, but a start, he said. He informed us, however, that out of the 13 bylined features on artists and/or their works in his paper's art pages during the last three months, only five were critical reviews of exhibitions. The good news is that the overall coverage still came up with a better number than did those for literature (9), theater (5), music (4), film (3), and dance (1). Now, of course, he admits that the broadsheet has this tendency to prioritize subjects with a presumably broader audience, but he also lamented the fact that the number of art critics' columns, apart from his own, declined to almost zero in Star due to its preferred writers' having taken paths other than that for art commentary. To fill the void created by those absent columns, his newspaper turned to information dissemination, as in the section Gallery News, which is basically just a list of upcoming exhibitions. Daoana reported, however, that fortunately in the oncoming future there'd be activity in relation to the Purita Kalaw-Ledesma Prize for Art Criticism, which seeks to discover a new breed of art critics and give space to their voices via Daoana's paper. Then he mentioned that there's the soon-to-appear twice-a-month art column by contemporary art critic Paula Acuin that should provide some contrast to Daoana's column's preference for the "more traditional" as well as to the occasional appearance of Cid Reyes' contributions that are broader in scope. There are other columns in the pages, but they do not exclusively write about art, such as those by Krip Yuson, Butch Dalisay, Juaniyo Arcellana, and Danton Remoto, only treating of art every now and then. Then, after having said that, Daoana cited a nostalgia for the old days when formal and informal groups would both have artists and writers in their membership; on this, Daoana wished gallerists would emulate the environment that created that inter-art camaraderie of old. Daoana challenged gallerists to also try to meet writers halfway via artist talks and exhibition walkthroughs wherein writers may engage with artists beyond the exhibition opening. He also encouraged gallerists to pitch story ideas and enter into exchanges with writers online, and, finally, of course, put on great shows that his paper or he himself can't afford to ignore.
Then came Marcelo, who first introduced herself as an art journalist, not an art critic. Her talk---titled Penises, TV shows, bishops, and memos: How art landed on the front page---tackled the controversy that surrounded Poleteismo, Mideo Cruz's installation art piece during a group exhibition called Kulo at the Cultural Center of the Philippines from June 17, 2011. Hogging the front pages for a period, the CCP consequently closed the exhibition a couple of weeks earlier than its closing schedule because of public requests to have it pulled down, requests mostly coming from religious authorities, Christian devotees, and politicians who allied themselves with the religious call. After this, Marcelo noted that what could have been a discourse on the art soon veered towards laymen's analyses on the psychological standing of the artist. She underscored the fact that initial reports about the work were pretty one-sided, lacking notes on the artist's position as well as filled with factual errors. She further noted that it was actually a religious authority's protestations over the artwork that created the Streisand effect that would soon involve the voices of politicians including Jinggoy Estrada, Juan Ponce Enrile, Tito Sotto, and, finally, Imelda Marcos, whose continuing stature as an international media personality brought the issue to the noses of the foreign media. Marcelo displayed on the projected screen a sampling of names of columnists who had a thing or two to say about the Kulo show, often in relation to artistic freedom, blasphemy, sacrilege, and good and bad art. She asked the forum to note that these names did not include critics who specialized in art, while lamenting the fact that academics who did specialize in art did not, or forgot to, reach out to her paper. The point of her talk was that reporting, especially on such an alienated field as art with its exotic language, has to be professionalized in order to get its facts right and complete. In turn, that academics must realize that art criticism needs the support of art reportage, since there is space for both, especially on matters where reportage can clarify in its own language the view of an analysis as well as matters where reportage has to complete the Five Ws and one H of journalism necessary for a rounded comprehension of various analyses. After all, the Five Ws and one H would itself require a view of the landscape of criticisms upon a work, criticisms both pro and con.
Finally, de Veyra (that's me) brought the first slide of his talk bearing the title Blind and Deaf Men Around an Elephant: On the role of writers, editors, publishers and the art community in the formation of a living art culture. [This part of the video was real shaky, due to my eldest son's passing the camera to his younger brother, who couldn't keep the cam steady. :)]
In his brief talk, de Veyra answered the forum question about 1) the state of art criticism in the Philippines today and 2) the role of writers, editors and publishers in advancing art criticism by denying the implied premise in both paradigms. He denied the premise that implies a responsibility among editors and publishers to advance art criticism, saying editors---like writers---are just players of the game; it is not their prime responsibility to take a view of the state of their industry from a distance. Not because they don't care, he explained, but because they'd usually be too busy playing to take the time to also be coach. So, instead, de Veyra offered anecdotal evidence of what may be part of what's going on, which just may lead everyone to a theory of a possible overall condition. He narrated that, from his angle, he sees no shortage of art opinion, seeing a different shortage instead. He offered a more liberal take on what constitutes "art criticism," including in his list even little Facebook comments as potential valid sources, to eschew the statistical conclusion that assumes and only assumes a poverty of such texts. Why all this "need" to have more writers?---he asked. If it is to create a living art criticism culture, he then further asked what we mean by "living." He said his own observations and questions led him to a theory postulating that the supposed poverty that we feel in our country's art criticism is not due to a low number of art reviews or comments out there but to the lack of reactions towards them. He used the overly-popular AlDub phenomenon as an extreme example of a living culture birthed by reactions instead of mere production, as the production of a thing---so his argument went---does not yet mean life for that thing. He offered the reality bite that while art criticism is being produced, consumption or reaction does not necessarily follow. His solution: first, acknowledge the fact that we have been deluding ourselves into thinking that our art critical culture becomes alive via the mere presence of art critical products; second, acknowledge the fact that art critics are "blind men around an elephant" trying to offer their take for or against a part of the elephant, and therefore would not be the right parties to measure their own views' significance; and, lastly, that it is in fact art historians that we need, who---after all---are there precisely to report on what's going on and measure significance (including the significance of certain criticisms). De Veyra argued that politicians react strongly not to opinion columns but to news items; he proposed that the art community could react in the same way towards presented "facts" via historical texts. And whether they react positively or negatively, their reaction would definitely jump-start that life that we want. (De Veyra did not tackle the art historian in almost every art critic, as when the art critic chooses his best-of-the-year list in relation to other art that he didn't include in his list but he presumably was aware of). [IF YOU WANT TO READ THE TEXT OF DE VEYRA'S ADAPTED BRIEF LECTURE, CLICK HERE]
Critical Platforms I, Part 2 or 2nd Session
Moderator Reyes was correct in saying that the second session's three speakers' talks only seemed at first glance to be very different. For they did indeed interconnect. Daoana was essentially clamoring for more exchanges between artists, gallerists and writers to create a living journalism for art. Marcelo, for her part, campaigned for an acknowledgment of the significance of art reportage qua support for art criticism, proffering the consequence of its presence: art and art criticism is brought to a wider public via journalism's language and its ideally complete, unprejudiced view of the landscape of facts, the result of which journalistic treatment and wider public reach would be life brought back to art. During the Q&A period of the session, Marcelo stated that it was precisely the journalism around the controversial Kulo group exhibition of 2011 that brought life to the art in question, if not to Philippine contemporary art as a whole. De Veyra's talk, meanwhile, simply expanded on the views of Daoana and Marcelo with the proposition that art historians can provide challenging art historical views on the landscape of a moment or recent period as well as render judgment there on the significance or insignificance of certain appearances. Also asked about the public reaction to the Kulo exhibition, de Veyra answered that it was nothing more than a manifestation of a public's alienation from, or ignorance about, the codifications of Mideo Cruz's art, in this case the lexicon of bricolage or the installation art. If we are to connect this answer to de Veyra's lecture, indeed the public's set of reactions towards Cruz's artwork could have been checked better if art history was within their reach or was present in all of it. De Veyra failed to mention it in his answer, but it would be a curiosity if Cruz's artistic statement would have gotten the same reaction if it was delivered via artforms society is relatively more familiar with: verse poetry, for instance, or the song, or the essay, artforms that by their codification's relative familiarity to the public might have less need of authorities' guidance towards an appreciation of their, say, sarcasm or parody or irony. He added that his blog criticism of the popular criticism by the novelist F. Sionil Jose (not in diskurso.com), which Jose criticism hit Cruz's art as "not art," touched on the various definitions of art (including "ugly art" or "bad art," as with those items displayed at the Museum of Bad Art). He said his blog criticism also presented the argument that aniconism as well as hatred for icons (iconoclasm) are not necesarily anti-Christian but are part of Christian history (it even exists today in Christian fundamentalism). In short, the public reaction was all thanks to a wanting presence of art history in the discourse. Thus, while the attention given to art was somewhat exciting, it was not exactly driven by the intellectual focus that art history (of various art lexicons) could have provided. Which was practically what Marcelo was also saying about the wrong journalistic angles with which reporters approached the art and the controversy.
There was another question regarding spaces for polemics. Daoana answered that learned criticism does not really need to be antagonistic, especially when its priority is to educate rather than to censure. He pushed the reality that the fashionable thing to do now is to render judgment subliminally through one's decisions on what and what not to cover, what and what not to highlight, who and who not to talk to. On this question, de Veyra felt he had to also take the mike to share what a jetsetting gallerist told him about the present art critical landscape in France, where gallerists would pay reviewers' papers or websites to get a review on their shows but without expecting the reviewer to do a positive review, respecting the reviewer's honest judgment. Gallerist Silvana Diaz of Galleria Duemila who was in the audience negated the veracity of this report, expressing disgust for the "bought" writer. De Veyra---who said he can't mention the name of the gallerist who told him about it---could only answer, "well, I've never been to France, so . . ." [diskurso.com will be interviewing that mysterious gallerist soon, so watch out for it].
Diskurso.com wanted to cover the forum further, especially with the third session being on galleries' and gallerists' role in the advancement of an art critical culture, but unfortunately this writer---being based in a low Bulacan town---was worried about the accumulating rainwater the typhoon nearing landfall in Aurora province was bringing with it; and so I, though I've never ever been to France, took a French leave. [d]
GALLERY (invoking fair use of photos culled from various Facebook pages):
In left photo, Art+ editor and first session moderator Duffie Hufana Osental (seated left) with the session panel including (from left to right) Cid Reyes, Reuben Ramas Cañete, and Patrick Duarte Flores. In right photo, a view of the audience at the UP Vargas Museum forum.
In this photo, Osental stands to hand over moderation of the second session to critic Cid Reyes (seated left), who introduced session panelists (from left to right) Carlomar Daoana, Sam Marcelo, and diskurso.com's Jojo Soria de Veyra.
More session 2 photos.
The Session 3 moderator and panelists.
The Art+ staff/crew responsible for the forum's success.
text (c) 2015 Jojo Soria de Veyra
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