By Marian Pastor Roces
THE OUTRAGE spiked social Geiger counters. The Imelda Marcos re-appearance at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), upon the invitation of its Board to be honored as founder, set off rumblings at a time of heightened seismic activity. Even if low intensity, the bubbling-over is as much produced by pent-up steam as Taal’s.
Taal of course comes to mind because the dinner organizers gave a post facto justification: a volcanic eruption relief drive. The weak spin did not merit rebuttal.
Nevertheless, there are matters to bother with, concerning the cocktail that includes Imelda, the CCP, imprudent parties, and volcanic eruptions. All of it is to do with ideas whose time is past.
The most obvious of these is that which supposes that “politics” can and should be separated from “art.” The party is about “art”; the “politics” can be left at the Little Theater entrance. The former is supposed to be ethereal and elevated. In this view, the latter is muddy stuff that art shirks from.
This effete idea has not been in play in art, globally, for at least a century. Its persistence in the Philippines can only be attributed to its usefulness to Imeldific sorts who need this separation to keep skeletons in closets, maneuvers in shadows, and silverware in their proper places.
By boxing out art from how power is distributed in a society, art is kept airless and bloodless. And it is inevitably just show. Art that’s just show will not be neutral. It is available to nefarious purpose.
Less obvious but more insidious is the idea that art is soft. Software and soft power are among the too-easy metaphors that facilitate the injection of vile politics into art’s muscle, rendering it flaccid and manipulable. Buying into this idea of softness allows spurious cultural explanations and hard political manipulation to escape attention.
For example, one pundit opines that utang na loob (debt of gratitude) attributed to CCP employees explains the continuing goodwill that somehow warrant the party. But whether or not this cultural proclivity produced the impetus for the event, is hardly as important as the re-entry strategy of the Marcos family into the realm of political legitimacy through the area they believe soft and vulnerable to penetration: art.
It does not do Filipinos any good to appeal to cultural explanation where straightforward political explanation is gets quicker to the heart of the matter. In fact, attributing political steps backward — to backward politics in general — to purported cultural flaws has the effect of concealing brazen play. This event is part of the Marcos family juggernaut back into deceptively soft-shelled hard power.
The CCP party was because Marcos. It was not because culture. And certainly not because flawed culture.
A third fatuous idea comes to surface at this intersection of culture and politics. It is the notion that art’s relationship to democracy is exactly the same as art’s relationship to autocracy. Few artists — even the avowedly apolitical — think this. But the country’s leadership from even before Marcos have entertained this misconception.
Still, it is the Marcos family in 1969, and them again in 2020, that represents the ghoulish tenacity of this vision of art as ethically neutral. The CCP as an institution began under its weight; unburdened itself of it, post 1986; and is now dealing with its undertow.
The Imeldific CCP did not last long. Her considerable force that pushed this illusory picture of art had dissipated well before the Marcos forced evacuation to Hawaii in 1986. Her apologists’ claims about the value of her arts infrastructure have since been collapsed by sheer commonsensical appreciation of artistic production engaged in political process. More than half of CCP’s institutional life (34 years) transpired with artists articulating evolving relationships between art and the Philippine democratic project; and with global political tremors.
The CCP does not belong to this fat old woman, and never to her svelte earlier self and her vanities about art; nor to her scheming children. But, yes, there is an undertow pulling the institution to the past. Its retrograde energy issues from the fantasy of apolitical art; its hallucinatory power, from actual power exercised by the retooled Marcos political infrastructure that is heavily invested in cultural rehabilitation. These power mongers need the CCP.
The use of Taal’s sulfur-smelling eruption to try to perfume the odious dinner shows up the cynicism of the Marcos rehab managers. It is remarkably uncreative (and quite inappropriate to a cultural center) and insulting to artists, cultural workers, rescuers, relief workers, victims, on and on. However, it is equally insulting to read comments about the CCP as unchangeably Imeldific. The CCP is more than its founders and leaders past and present; more than its early history; and more than its mix of ideas about art.
The CCP is 50 years old. It is a number that occasions more than celebratory gestures. In this half century, the Philippines’ complex community of artists and cultural workers has re-shaped it in directions the Marcoses cannot conceive. Among other stuff that happens as a matter of course, the CCP outgrew its beginnings. The dinner would have produced protestation: the Marcoses and their friends inside and outside the CCP smell old and decayed. A profusion of fresh flowers did not mask the smell of decomposition that wafted out of the building.
But just as the Philippines can now happily expect opposition to the use of the CCP as a stage for attempted Marcosian resurrections, the country can rely on the CCP’s broad constituency and stakeholders to sustain a trajectory away from the unworthy ideas that gave birth to it.
Marian Pastor Roces is an independent curator and critic whose research interests include international art events, museums, identity politics, cities, and clothing. She is the founder and principal of TAO, Inc., a museum and exhibition development corporation. More of her critical texts can be found in Gathering: Political Writing on Art and Culture, the first collection of Roces’s essays co-published in 2019 by the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design and ArtAsiaPacific Foundation.