Freedom of Expression?

Art or Blasphemy?

By Gel Santos Relos
The Fil-Am Perspective

Picture this: an "image" of Jesus Christ with an attached wooden replica of male genitalia, draped with a rosary and protruding directly over the face of Jesus.

This is "Politeismo" by Mideo Cruz. It is one of the art works that was on exhibit at the the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Main Gallery, which opened last June 17, 2011. Entitled “Kulo”, this piece is part of a compilation of work by 32 artists, celebrating the 150th anniversary of Jose Rizal.

When the exhibit was featured by one television network, the “Christ with a penis” created such a public uproar. Filipinos from different economic, educational and social backgrounds were appalled by the exhibit, calling Cruz's masterpiece "blasphemous, malicious and sacrilegious."

Criticisms escalated to violent threats to security. A couple had reportedly vandalized the artwork and attempted to set fire to the exhibit, but was unsuccessful. The CCP Board and the artists received increasing number of hate mails and threats following this incident.

In her research for the rationale behind Cruz's work, Raissa Robles wrote, "The artist Mideo Cruz said he pasted the phallus on Christ’s face to symbolize Christ’s power and authority. Robles also cited a previous interview made by Ina Silverio with artist Mideo Cruz. This was before the outrage happened.

The art work is Mideo Cruz' visual commentary of how religion is viewed and practiced in the Philippines.

“I wanted to provoke people into thinking. I titled my work ‘Politeismo’ which loosely translates into ‘many beliefs’ or ‘many deities.’ Throughout history, humanity has grown to create new gods and these are not always religious figures but concepts and objects. Some have taken to worshiping money; some see politicians as godsend. People create idols and these idols whether or not they’re deserving of idolatry or worship affect our lives and how we function and see the world,” Mideo Cruz explained.

Based on the public reaction to the art work, Raissa made the conclusion, "Mideo Cruz was right about his observation on how Filipinos view religion."

Retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz has condemned the exhibit of artist Mideo Cruz, calling it a “consummate sacrilege.” He described the exhibit as “sick and sickening” and “radically insensitive to natural decency, offensive to ethical standards, and hideous to moral norms.”

Through his blog, the bishop criticized the CCP for “displaying the radical vulgarity instead at nurturing and promoting Filipino positive cultural values as defined by its Mission Statement.”

Echoing the sentiments of other Catholic Church leaders, Bishop Cruz further wrote that the CCP Board is supposed to be “art connoisseurs but [they] cannot even see the difference between art and plain vandalism... [they] allow themselves to be taken for a ride by a sick man posing as an artist.”

Former First Lady and now Ilocos Congresswoman Imelda Marcos said,” After seeing the exhibit I was really shocked because it was not only ugly, it was not true, it was not at all beautiful because there were statues and pictures of saints and Christ with horns and with his penis up and it was really a desecration of a spiritual symbol for Catholics.”

President Noynoy Aquino himself communicated to the CCP Board his disapproval about the exhibit. The CCP is under the Office of the President.

In an interview, Aquino pointed out that 85 percent of Filipinos were Christians and that the CCP is being funded by taxpayers.Thus, it should be “of service” to the people. “I think I made myself clear to them. You have rights but when you already trample on the rights of others, there’s already something wrong,” the President said.

Citing violent security threats, the CCP closed down the exhibit last August 9. Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Visual Arts division head Karen Flores, resigned from her post as well the day after. But the uproar against the CCP officials and artist Mideo Cruz has not ended.

Some Senators expressed the need to conduct a Senate inquiry on the matter. At least three of them: Sotto, Enrile, and Estrada, called for the resignation of all CCP officials. Sotto even threatened to withhold funding for the CCP.

The University of Santo Tomas has denounced and rejected Mideo Cruz as an alumnus. Devout Catholics staged their protest in front of the CCP. A lay Catholic group, St. Thomas More Society, filed criminal and administrative charges against the artist and the CCP Board before the Office of the Ombudsman “because the Christian nation has been offended”.

Artists, free thinkers and progressive Filipinos, on the other hand, protested against the closing down of the exhibit and said this is an infringement of the freedom of expression, as guaranteed by the Constitution.

The artwork, supporters say, has been exhibited since 2002 in other venues: Ateneo de Manila, UP Vargas Museum and Kulay Diwa Galleries -- why the uproar now? CCP Visual Arts Division Head Flores lamented on how the media, and two news organizations in particular, had "sensationalized" the issue, particularly "Politeismo.”

The curator of the controversial exhibit J. Pacena II said: "The latest pronouncement of the CCP Board sets a bad precedent. Our right to freely express ourselves were curtailed. I am shocked and appalled by how our civil liberties were exploited to satiate the sensibilities of a raucous mob. In effect, majority of the participants’ ideas and artistic expressions were neglected and compromised by this decision."

Artists called for unity to fight against censorship at the press conference dubbed "Palayain ang Sining." They pointed out that the threats and actual filing legal charges made against the Cultural Center of the Philippines (citing Art. 201 of the Revised Penal Code) is unconstitutional.

Article 201 penalizes “those who shall publicly expound or proclaim doctrines openly contrary to public morals... those who, in theaters, fairs, cinematographs or any other place, exhibit, indecent or immoral plays, scenes, acts or shows, whether live or in film, which are prescribed by virtue hereof, shall include those which… offend any race or religion; …are contrary to law, public order, morals, and good customs, established policies, lawful orders, decrees and edicts."

On the other hand, Article 3 Section 4 of the Philippine Constitution states that “no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances."

"Kaya maaasahan natin sa mga susunod na okasyon na magkakaroon ng paggamit ng sining upang ipakita ang pagsalungat ng mga artista o ng isang artista sa umiiral na kalagayan sa lipunan, maaasahan natin na ang mga obispo, ang mga pinuno ng mga reaksyonaryong artista, mga tagapagmasid sa lipunan, ay pauulit-ulit na maghaharap ng pagtutol tungkol sa ginagawa para sa sining...”, National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera articulated.

You always reap the increase of what you sow. Sow provocation and you'll reap controversy.

With his work, surely Mideo Cruz got his intended harvest. But is his controversial exhibit at CCP an art, or is it blasphemy?

Some people, when they are in a state of denial of their silent crisis of spiritual identity, subconsciously tend to resort to art as a means of abstractly ventilating their inner confusion.

Going back to the question at hand. Is the Mideo Cruz' controversial exhibit an art or is it blasphemy? There should be no argue as to whether it is an art or a blasphemy because clearly it is a combination of both. It is an artistic blasphemy as well as a blasphemous art. It is a work of a confused poor soul who is struggling to find spiritual identity and in the process subconsciously learns to explore the art of blasphemy to doubt its own doubts.

Should it be protected by freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution?

A political activist by the name of Noam Chomsky once said, "If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all." But in some "democracies", there is something they called "blasphemous libel". It is the crime committed if a person insults, offends, or vilifies the deity, Christ, or the Christian religion. The question is this: In exercising freedom of expression, how much can a person insult, offend, or vilify someone or something before he violates a law?

What you always value, you always respect, and what you truly respect you truly value. But from an atheistic mind of an artist like Mideo Cruz, what is placing a penis on a picture of Christ? To him, of course, it's all but art. There is nothing more valuable to most artists than ego which they express in their brand of work. Most artists believe that without the freedom to offend, freedom of expression ceases to exist.

But freedom of expression does not mean you have the absolute right to offend, insult, or vilify anyone or anything. It means you are free to express anything while practicing the art of respect for others.

Have you heard of the story of a man who punched another man because he thinks he has the freedom to express what he pleases to do? And the punched man with his nose bleeding exclaimed, “Yeah, but your freedom ends where my nose begins!”

Now that story might be true. But the framers of democracy understood the danger before it happened. And they crafted a type of civilization where privilege is balanced with responsibility.

Freedom is not the ability to do whatever you want without constraints. A good citizen is one who exercises his choices with wisdom and respect for the rights of others.

[Galatians 6:3-7]

For if a man thinks himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each man test his own work, and then he will take pride in himself and not in his neighbor. For each man will bear his own burden. But let him who is taught in the word share all good things with him who teaches. Don't be deceived. God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that will he also reap.