The sacred and the profane
Tempers boiled at the Cultural Center of the Philippines during the public forum for “Kulo”, an exhibit held there recently by selected artists who graduated or have studied in the University of Santo Tomas.
The contemporary art show, which ran along (although not officially part of it) with the pontifical university’s quadricentennial celebration, aimed to present the Tomasian artist’s reassessment of their faith now that they are no longer bound by Dominican restrictions.
And indeed, as in the youth newly freed from parental authority, the artists were predictably too eager to “slay their masters” and try what’s beyond the borders of acceptable taste. Mideo Cruz, one of the artists, resorted to shock by deliberately testing the taboo. He attached a phallus on a cross, hung a used condom around the other, and did other ways of putting together the sacred and the profane.
An unknown viewer, apparently a conservative Catholic, vandalized the work, prompting CCP authorities to hold the forum, inviting people from religious groups and artists to a dialogue. Emotions flared as expected and the media were quick to feast on the controversy.
In its wake, CCP officials and the artist himself started to receive violent reactions including death threats, forcing them to close the show citing security reasons. A religious group has filed a lawsuit against them. UST disowned the artists. Some lawmakers want a review of CCP policies, hinting state censorship. Others propose budget cuts.
A bishop got so angry he was practically cursing the artist. One parish conducted a rare ritual of asking forgiveness in behalf of the artist. It included a small procession with participants walking barefoot and a group of priests lying prostrate before the altar.
The latter could have been an act of “planking” to use the current term of suddenly dropping prostrate in unlikely places to generate bewilderment among the public, a recent fad among young people that is obviously borrowed from performance art.
The Church ritual itself is full of elaborate imagery and poetic gestures that would make it pass for performance art. It has its own dose of irrationality and even shock value.
In fact, finding this parallel of contemporary art in the hybrid artistic forms of Catholic pageantry, the Jesuits have accommodated contemporary art in the Ateneo Gallery, even those that openly criticize religion. In fact, the same work by Mideo Cruz was reported to have been previously shown there.
The Jesuits understood that the artist merely used the religious symbols as mere signifiers of meaning, placing them in ironic contexts in order to make us reflect on what’s behind our attitudes towards them.
Thus, beneath the deliberate use of shocking imagery is a serious attempt to question our faith, how it has been reduced to different forms of idolatry, indeed a kind of polytheism.
Art dares to explore such moral ambiguities that religion often denies. As such it is more of a question rather than an answer that religion purports to be. And even contemporary theologians have accepted that the fact that it’s no longer possible to make statements of certainty about God as the Scholastics once tried by turning religion into a kind of science.
Likewise, art can only present truth in the form of paradox or ambiguity. Even beauty reflects that self-contradiction as it often conceals itself beneath the surface of what’s normally considered ugly or even obscene.
And in the same spirit of the Second Vatican Council’s redefinition of the modern Church as a community center and no longer just a place of worship, thus allowing secular activities (like a disco or rock concert held in our university church, for example) in its premises, we should also start to consider freeing religious symbols from their confinement to sacred function.
The Church should thus allow artists to use them as signifiers of meaning, even if they may appear to be irreverent in their intent to reflect on the current state of religion. It will do well for the Church to exercise understanding and forgiveness in this recent controversy. After all, if we insist on our right to publicly display our faith and their symbols despite complaints by atheists and those in other sects, the artists too may invoke the same inherent right to express themselves even in ways that may offend us.
Perhaps no other religion has been so openly criticized or even ridiculed than modern Catholicism. But this only proves that people have great confidence in the Church’s tolerance. Intimidating artists with a lawsuit is an act that belongs to old religion, the faith based on fear.
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