A plea for policy, a cry for critique

Updated: Apr 10, 2018

by Patrick Flores

▶︎ Always, there lurks largesse in political appointments as if it were some natural order of things. Of course there is nothing natural about the order. It is an order after all. But the thing is that in the realm of culture, putatively rarefied, the grease is expected to be less slick. Well, putatively. And yes, supposedly less. The recent naming of certain people to some offices related to culture, broadly conceived here lest we earn the ire of scholars who diligently probe the intricacies of this contentious term, betrays that more of the same in politics is happening in the field of art and culture in the heady age of Duterte.

Yes, Mayor President, there are other sources of opiates in these parts.

The investment in the stature of culture as a lynchpin of development politics in post-independence Philippines had its watershed in the Marcos period, with First Lady Imelda galvanizing it as a force not only confined to its preordained place but across the entire social life. Its centralization in the hands of a coterie at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) was both a strength and a vulnerability, something that the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in the succeeding period tried to significantly reframe within a more horizontal, more democratic logic of decision-making. The rigor at the CCP and the aspiration to consensus at the NCCA should hold out lessons to us today and warn us of the folly of snobbery and populism.

A cursory review of the history of cultural planning in the country would point to some early nodes in the Diosdado Macapagal government. In 1972, the critic Leonidas Benesa edited the final report of the Symposium on the Cultural Policy of the Philippines. It might serve the Duterte government to reflect on the gains and the lapses of the process of harnessing policy in the past.

For it is policy that is scant in the current landscape, the reason that people are being appointed to positions seemingly as favors for the support they had offered in the political campaign. With a policy in place, such routines of accommodation would become anathema and the riffraff that crawls out of the woodwork would be forever banished. And with policy as beacon, more light could be shed on the plans of putting up a Department of Culture in the future.

Alongside this plea for policy is the cry for critique. There can be no compelling artistic production without a compelling culture of critique. While there is in our midst intense celebration of new works in festivals, there is virtually zero production of critique. A case in point is Cinemalaya, which has festivalized independent cinema but has not created a lively ecology for criticism to flourish, as if film were merely a form of content to be provided in the market of the creative industry, or that it could only be acknowledged through an awards scheme not so far away from the Famas.

Quite sadly, practitioners bask in this festivalization of so-called independence, seeking validation from festival organizers who cannot hold still, take a pause, and engage in a critical discussion. It is basically a circus masquerading as culture, with aspirants waiting in the wings for a berth, like bloggers wanting to become bureaucrats.

Alongside this problem is the fact that broadsheets in the traditional media do not cede space for criticism, a problem oft-told and oft-lamented. In this regard, the situation in the visual arts is the most disconcerting. While the art world offers inventive production, the papers do not review it; the press largely covers market-accessible objects, which are usually inattentive to the challenges of contemporary art and its vastly changing contexts. The text that is passed off as commentary is not shaped by a diligent thinking through of the material and refuses to converse with current theoretical literature.

And we realize that this kind of facile journalism is linked to a segment of academe that is averse to theory – more or less the same circuit that offers workshops in writing whatever the kind! No wonder then that the more prominent expressions of Philippine writing have drifted towards irrelevance, if not obsolescence altogether, finding their affirmation in self-organized workshops that only replicate traditional pedagogies and in, again, festivals held in posh hotels.

As we can clearly see, the lack of labor in the field of policy and the absence of critique as a fundamental rhizome of sensible and creative production has led us to this nearly barren terrain of simulated gestures of artistic activity, peopled by sound-bite makers and hype meisters, in other words creatures who should have nothing to do with the art and culture of our time. We are tempted to call them philistines. But that, too, might be too nuanced a word.

And so, the marching orders are out: deepen whatever policy has been crafted and create an environment of discussion on it; sustain initiatives in the discipline of criticism as a central moment in the life of art making; and conceive of more progressive ways to hone talent through reciprocal conversations with peers and across generations beyond the outmoded and often feudal workshop paradigm.

This is urgent because in the time of Duterte, a new method of thinking and writing is required and warranted, one that is idiosyncratic enough to keep pace with the quick-change, ludic temper of the President, a departure from the warped partisanship of the yellow operators and their jaundiced commentariat.

We are finally humbled by the philosopher Walter Benjamin who finds in critique a certain indispensable vitality as opposed to the inert commentary. While the commentator is “left with wood and ashes as the sole objects of his analysis,” the critic takes to the “enigma of the flame itself: the enigma of being alive… the critic inquires about the truth whose living flame goes on burning over the heavy logs of the past and light ashes gone by.”

That eloquently said, we are likewise chastened by the beautifully wicked swimmer-trasher Ryan Lochte who reasoned after his caper in the Olympics that he might have “over-exaggerated” a part of the alleged crime. That part of the story is actually the thing – or the thing, totally.

Patrick Flores is professor of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines and curator of the Vargas Museum.