By Marian Pastor Roces
“The CCP Art and Power Pas De Deux” was originally published in San Juan magazine in January 1985, and is one of more than 40 essays in Gathering: Political Writing on Art and Culture, the first collection of essays by Marian Pastor Roces, who has written extensively about craft, art, museology, cultural theory and politics. What follows is a condensed version of the essay which is being reprinted in light of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’s 50th anniversary this year.
MY DIATRIBE is fixed on the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), because it is difficult to conceive of the building, the Philippine colossus (“Parthenon,” said the founding mother), as vulnerable. CCP deflected critical examination since its inception; but perhaps that time is past.
The CCP took up the awesome presumption of gathering up all the meanings and ambitions of Philippine culture — an omniscience before which Filipinos became pagans needing to be educated; philistines needing enlightenment.
As a symbol, the first building in the complex could only succeed: the beautiful and victorious form rising from the sea is compelling everywhere. Botticelli’s Venus Rising from the Sea is called up. The mythic navels in the seas of Philippine mythology are in the mind’s eye.
The Leandro Locsin building works especially for an archipelagic people familiar with images of the sea; who enjoy a creation myth which has a bird throwing rocks into the sea to form life-giving land (Locsin said he really intended for the building to look like it was thrown there); a people, furthermore, who are attached to the orange and red sunset at Manila Bay and who are known to have regarded that spot of sea at the intersection of what is now Vito Cruz and Roxas Boulevard, abode of mermaids, with some reverence.
So why, ungrateful peasants, are Filipinos not one in singing hosannas? I think some intelligence may be culled from the structure itself.
The CCP as edifice/phantasm insists on a single perspective. It must be viewed from outside, frontally. From the back, it is unprepossessing, even ugly, especially because our backs are turned against the heaven and sea panorama. The form works best as though a drawing on paper, showing the doubling effect of the reflecting pool. This is the single perspective that most aligns with central authority.
Inside the CCP, a dark and inhospitable warren annuls the timeless vision produced by the façade. The tomb effect is made more profound by the fact that CCP is actually two buildings (two architectural plans) stuck together. The plans for a cantilevered, floating front was appended to plans for a regular skyscraper behind, which makes it difficult to navigate the spaces within. Outside is the place of architectural lucidity for this building.
Outside is where most Filipinos have stayed.
Hence the CCP is nothing like the Eiffel Tower, or Borobudur, or Shih Huang Ti’s Great Wall, or for that matter, the Parthenon, all of which are forms simultaneously for looking at, and for looking out from. The entombed employees are essentially time-bound to the calendar of events transpiring under stage lights. The CCP’s stillness and opacity comes close to the obsession with bravura form and symbolic gesture that characterizes baduy.
The Martial Law architect’s need to be great (again or at last) is perfectly matched to the CCP’s raison d’être, and represents a deep discomfort about the validity of Filipino culture; a culture which, from all indications, had no need for monuments. To Locsin, the CCP is a triumph of the large-scale, something which no Filipino has done well before, or since. So far. Hence, even as an achievement, it stands outside the trajectories of Philippine culture.
Despite the singular genius of Locsin, therefore, the CCP is not a monument to the large-scale, but to a humongous inferiority complex.
Our leaders’ lust for elusive grandeur operated in the CCP in systematic ways. It was not only metaphorically that the national ambition was spelled out: because Filipinos so need to be accepted by the world as a five-star civilization, the nation must exert itself heroically at incubating virtuosos. Art must be made for international competition, by prizefighters to hasten the process of legitimization, and by the way, art might be made to entertain Filipinos.
The Filipino is to be educated, post-haste (the disembodied voice on the sound system instruct us not to clap between symphony concert movements); “exposed” (witness Van Cliburn, Margot Fonteyn, Placido Domingo); reminded of supposedly forgotten glory hence the very long parade of “tribes” in costume that was the Kasaysayan ng Lahi and “folk arts festivals” where “ethnic” types sell off the sad artifacts of dying cultures.
In the original version of the compensatory mechanism (the insecure must overcompensate), art becomes a gift, something to be delivered, ultimately to the provinces. The Outreach Program literally reaches out to the unblessed-by-art, instead of art coming out of the dynamics of life, reaching out to the CCP.
This arrogance would be innocuous if it were not so magisterially served up from that building, the site of enormous power. (Surely, there is nothing wrong with being educated.) But this notion of art-as-gift — and its flip-side, art-as-power-strategy — can kill. The near-death of the visual arts avant-garde, “developed” by the CCP Art Museum, is a small tragedy with literally a moral lesson.
This potentially powerful art which sought to subvert the fuzzy-headed, sentimentalizing tendencies of establishment art in the Philippines, was absorbed into the myth-making machinery of the CCP. And there it expired.
Fascism is unavoidable in this discussion because it is impossible to dismiss the signs: for example, the Betsy Westendorp de Brias renditions of a goddess-like Imelda Marcos. Also, in the aesthetics of spectacle which is idealized as a return to religion; in the claims of art in the name of utopian morality, which the Marcoses borrowed from China and the Soviet Union; finally, in art-making subsumed under a bureaucratic State apparatus.
I think that the mind that imagined that art’s link to life is from on high, that art straddles myth on one hand and State system on the other (the legendary Makiling site giving aura to bureaucracy), is an infinitely evil mind. It engaged the Philippines and its refinements in a dance of death.