Will the Last Pinoy Art Critic Please Turn Off the Lights Before Leaving, Thank You

BY JAY BAUTISTA | The title of a painting by the artist Joan Snyder, Sad Story Told By An Optimist, sums up the way I feel about the current state of Philippine art criticism.
Although I have written a lot on Philippine art in graduate school at the University of the Philippines, I still cannot get myself to be considered an art critic. The profession, or vocation, if you might call it that, takes a lifetime of going to shows, looking at each artwork, and writing to develop an eye for art and come up with a credible body of literature.
These days, to spend time doing the rounds in the many galleries around Metro Manila is already a privilege. The luxury of milling around painting after painting requires time and resources since the best places to see art are in out-of-the-way places. In my experience, to see the best shows require a mini-expedition.
That rare creature called The Pinoy Art Critic
An article entitled “Death of the Critic” in the New York Times mentions the spate of laying off or bowing out of at least 30 critics in United States. They either lost or left their jobs in major city newspapers and many more in community newspapers in a span of two years.

What surprised me in the article is to find out that a friend's opinion is more trusted than a critic’s recommendation regarding works of art. Maybe in the Philippines, there is a slight variation: The one whose opinion weighs more heavily is either the staff working on the gallery or in the case of the exhibitions in the mall, the one manning the show. It's funny when collectors dare ask the artist what is his favorite work in a show, and the artist can’t find the right excuse to say that it has been bought or worse, the one unsold.

Gone are the days when the critic could make or break an artist’s career. When Clement Greenberg reviewed a group show, he singled out a certain Jackson Pollock, and eventually made him an art star. When David Sylvester wrote the first catalog of Francis Bacon, he knew he would make it big. Thus started a lifetime of friendship between the two.
In the Philippines, Leo Benesa, Alice Guillermo and Cid Reyes are the closest we have to art critics. These days the art critic is often perceived in the same way that an analog computer is: a quaint object.
Sometimes, one can’t help but ask if art criticism is really for us, especially now that the art critic is becoming a job out of the Jurassic. Is criticism apt for the Pinoy’s balat sibuyas? Imagine writing about a bad show and bumping into the artist at the local grocery a week after? Can you handle it?

We could be entering a Golden Age
of Pinoy visual art, but does anyone care?

Even skeptics (who are mostly my friends) view this time as the Golden Age of Pinoy visual arts because there are just so many damn good artists out there now. Despite the many galleries that have been sprouting left and right, there is still not enough to promise each good artist a show.
When Tin-aw Art Gallery opened last February, it was one of the most-awaited art events in recent memory by the Philippine art world. Virtually everyone was there despite the fact that the biggest protest rally against the Arroyo regime was mobilized on the same day. Fast forward three months and no one has written about the beautifully renovated structure (would you believe it was a former dance studio?) which was the last architectural work of the talented Sid Hildawa. As I write this, Tin-aw Art Gallery has been promoted by word of mouth only. A critical appreciation of its shows and artists has yet to appear in the mainstream media.

Browse through the mainstream newspapers and magazines, and find that there is a dearth of writing about this subject on a consistently effective way. The regulars are either too busy with book projects or with their respective institutions. Alice Guillermo is on leave with Business Mirror and is finishing a book on National Artist Carlos Francisco. Cid Reyes is vice president of his advertising agency and is set to come out with a book on National Artist J. Elizalde Navarro. Patrick Flores and Richie Lerma are minding the National Gallery of Art and Ateneo Art Gallery.
Other practitioners have gone to other stuff. Joselina Cruz is busy with the Singapore Biennale until September. Lisa Chikiamco is studying in Australia. I wonder where Oscar Campomanes is now?

Hello, where did everybody go?
One cannot downgrade the role of the critic in mediating between the artist and the viewing public in contemplating Philippine contemporary art. Whether you’re the artist, art dealer, art collector, museum director or gallery curator, critics conduct the dialog of what makes two coats of paint on canvas a masterpiece.
The history of Philippine contemporary art depends upon these reviews and documentation in the media. A lot depends on the artists and gallery owners that it has become de rigueur to have exhibit catalogs and artist’s statements no matter how low their budgets are.
But all is not lost in the writing of Philippine art. It is commendable how the makers of the art journal Pananaw are able to consistently produce a decent and scholarly publication on Philippine arts and culture. The recent issue of Pananaw was distributed in Documenta 12 in Germany. It’s about time we increased our presence in this important gathering, not just in art practice but in writing.

My favorite art critic Robert Hughes, who is also no longer actively writing, once said, “Art may be a small thing, but once it gives up its claim to seriousness, it is shot and its role as an arena of free thought and unregimented feeling is lost.”
Maybe to the lifestyle editors of mainstream publications, the role of an “art critic” is something assigned to him, and lumped with the “music critic” or “theater critic” due to limited space or budget constraints. It’s a pity. Our young and new visual artists deserve far better treatment than that.

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