Taking Ourselves to Task

The author of this essay is the managing editor of Pananaw, Philippine Journal of Visual Arts and a curatorial consultant of the Lopez Museum.

BY EILEEN LEGASPI-RAMIREZ | August 28, 2008: A month has passed since I sat among a panel of writers and curators (Ringo Bunoan of Asia Art Archive, Joselina Cruz who is co-curating the 2008 Singapore Art Biennale, Gina Fairely of Asian Art News, Boots Herrera of Vargas Museum, and Lally Herrera of Businessworld) who convened on the occasion of the recently concluded Ateneo Art Awards.

Perhaps it was instructive that despite the fact that the one hour-and-a-half session was intended to take on issues about art writing and curation in the country, almost all of the questions posed had to do with writing rather than curating. In hindsight, this could’ve been an indication of any of a number of things—indifference, reticence, or intimidation.

As we had gone on with the rather casual planning that preceded this one-day forum, scenarios of curators parrying questions on preference, representation, and power dynamics were among the eventualities we thought would materialize. But having witnessed how people were willing and ready to pass up on that sort of engagement, I’ve since come back to thinking about the questions that were in fact raised—specifically about what and for whom we were doing all this writing for.

Lally Herrera was cast on that panel primarily as a mainstream media voice and she was candid enough to say that much of what gets on print is primarily subject to considerations having to do with advertising space and editorial prerogative, the latter in turn weighing in on questions of readability and palatability. And there was the rub. By the time this forum was taking place, Pananaw, Philippine Journal of Visual Arts (which was what I was representing that day) was six volumes-old. We, that is, a team of equally driven artists, critics, and cultural managers, have kept at what is essentially an uphill battle to get people (ourselves included) to look and think about contemporary Philippine art in all its complexity.

Two-time Pananaw editor, Patrick Flores, even in absentia, got much of the ribbing that mid-morning. Herrera cited him specifically for a type of writing that Businessworld’s readers would not have the patience for. And so while I sat there testifying to how Patrick could shift writing registers between tabloid and academic journal, I was also mentally reckoning with the questions on audience. Ricky Francisco, a colleague at Lopez Museum earnestly pointed out how encountering art was often difficult enough in and of itself. What more of tangling with the jargon? I believe it was at this juncture that Joselina Cruz brought up the ticklish issue of reader intelligence and how writers should not be forced “to dumb down” texts. And this brings me back to what Pananaw is still continuing to hope to do.

When we began working on this series in 1996, much of the extant publications were primarily about bluechip artists and the recurring complaint (still is) was that much of what the broadsheets were dishing out were press releases not so subtly pitching the next or as the case may be, enduring, collector-must-have as premised on gallerist spin. Deliberately or not, what was in fact getting unto the art history annals was writing primarily done with the end view of money passing hands. There was very little writing done about art that wasn’t meant to be tagged with red dots. Very little on work that didn’t come out figured out for you or dared to demand any of time, cognitive and analytic skills. The predicament was of course, not a visual art monopoly, other fields like literature and film come populated with wounded kindred.

For us in Pananaw, it was clear that art, and culture in general, should not be reduced by de facto discourse to what is almost exclusively voted upon by the most pesos. And so we set out to cover other grounds, particularly what could be seen as positioned outside the ambit of market forces and including what was being done outside of Manila, that zone still suspiciously looked upon as unjustly hogging already scant and largely uncritical attention. And so this is where we’re at, six volumes down the line.

Pananaw came upon the scene in parallel to many other developments such as the rise of alternative art spaces both within and outside the NCR, and the regional organizing work begun in the 70s but which had by the 90s, taken on a more institutional character via regional representatives in the National Commission on Culture and the Arts artist-run committees. And though we’d like to think that Pananaw had some part in getting more people to look at creative work being done in the regions, the reality is the kind of self-organizing efforts going on from Luzon to Mindanao possessed their own momentum which I personally believe made people like us attempt to map or at least scan places where art was being made but just not talked of or written about in any adequate sense.

The scene as it currently stands is a maze of self-interest and contending agendas fuelling the energies of sometimes intersecting, sometimes severely polarized networks. This narrative of broken and renewed relations, animosities and tactical alliances gets rewritten every time the art producer-circulator-receiver matrix warrants realignments. And with the present Asian market boding to heat up even further, and artists themselves gearing up to increasingly take matters into their own hands through self-management, formations of any sort are bound to become less and less static. While as a whole, this terrain of making-encountering-trading communities remains maneuverable, it is no longer so simplistically construed as the dated dualities of conservative-modern, figurative-abstract, conceptual-social realist strains would have us resorting to so lazily.

Taken to a laughable extreme, no sober, well-meaning viewer today would have the audacity to ask a visual artist tinkering with some long drawn out artistic or philosophical conundrum to pare it all down, no matter how reductively just so ‘everyone but anyone can get it.’ Think of how impoverished this world would indeed be if none of us ever moved on from drawing stick figures and coloring within the lines.

And so, asked about how he would have responded to Herrera’s comment had he been at Ateneo last July, Flores casually replied to this writer: “But art is difficult.” Indeed, why should the writing on it be any different?

This essay is a postscript to Pananaw's`recent collaboration with the Ateneo Art Gallery and Asian Art News on the 2008 Ateneo Art Awards Zones of Influence public forum held at Ateneo De Manila University.

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