Lynch Mobs and Rabble Rousers
The TV video, shown live on national TV, was perhaps the defining moment of the whole Mideo Cruz controversy that has consumed the art and conservative Catholic communities in ways even this Catholic country has never seen. It showed part of an exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in which a picture of Jesus Christ had a wooden ashtray with a phallus glued to it.
Photos from the exhibit were shown as part of the PowerPoint presentation of officials from the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) before the senators of the Republic who held a much publicized public hearing on the controversy last Aug. 16.
The same images were part of the CCP exhibit that the moral police and Catholic conservatives led by various Church groups had successfully blocked from further public view at the CCP, whose officials decided to close down Kulo, the exhibit of the works of 32 artists, among them Cruz, whose “Poleteismo” is at the center of this firestorm.
The wooden penis on Jesus Christ’s face–actually an ashtray that can be bought from the sidewalks of Baguio City–was the image the conservatives wanted to hide from the public, first through an act of vandalism that detached the ash-tray from Cruz’s installation and, second, through the closure of Kulo by a CCP Board of Directors terrorized by threats of physical harm and even death they had received through text messages, email and the online social networks.
But on August 16 that Tuesday morning, in the less than august chambers of the Philippine Senate, it burst through and went public again, completely undermining the efforts to contain it. Art, or “art,” had found a way.
And it is perhaps appropriate that this exposure, as it were, of a key element in Cruz’s artwork happened on national television. And it was just as well, too, that, during the Senate hearing, the officials of the CCP took command of the situation, refusing to be cowed and browbeaten by the arrogant posturing and questioning of the senators. It was half a day of a veritable Art Appreciation class, with senators like Jinggoy Estrada being stripped of both the pretense that they cared about the moral well-being of the nation, and that they knew anything about art.
But the Senate hearing was also a terrifying spectacle in that the mantra by the holy men in white in the panel–that freedom of expression is not absolute–echoed in that chamber as a justification for more assaults on this very freedom. Who would dispute the real possibility that this won’t be the last time the self-appointed moral police and the conservatives posing as the nation’s supreme arbiters of what’s right and wrong censored an artist by threatening artists and artistic directors with hellfire while their followers threaten physical violence?
They repeat that line often enough and we may start to believe it, relegating our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms to the caprices of those who cannot tolerate contrary views of the world. The real test of democracy is not that citizens can exercise freedom of expression and freedom of the press but, most importantly, what their responses are to either. In the case of Mideo Cruz, the response was nothing short of fascistic.
But back to television, or the media, and the role they played in all this.
As much as I am glad that the networks helped unmask, if not the hypocrisy then the artistically malnourished minds of the fascists who bashed Cruz, his work and freedom of expression, we have to remember that all this began with a report by “XXX,” a program aired over ABS-CBN, which now and then describes itself as “investigative”.
In its July 18 episode, “XXX” featured a segment on Cruz’s work by focusing on a complaint about it. The program interviewed a woman who complained about the wooden penises she had seen in the CCP. “XXX” obliged her, strapping a hidden camera on one of its people, and showing portions of “Poleteismo” in deliberately dingy lighting, by that act implying that they were filming something sordid, in a place that was showing an illicit sexual or criminal act. (The exhibit was open to the public, and anybody could take pictures openly.)
That the “XXX” segment focused only on the supposedly repulsive aspects of “Poleteismo”–the penises, the condom draped on a cross – may have been designed to rile people up. And it did. Adding to the fire was the way the program was presented: “XXX” introduced it as a story about the Reproductive Health Bill, with Pinky Webb, the host, intoning that the RH issue has become so complicated that artists were using their art to push for the bill, no matter if the segment never managed to establish that connection.
The reason it could not was simple: Neither Kulo nor Poleteismo was ever about the RH bill. As the often colorful language of Filipino journalists would put it, the “XXX” episode was an “SS” story, “SS” being shorthand for masturbation.
Surely the conservatives who have vowed to rain fire and brimstone on Cruz are an intelligent lot? Surely they could not have been so easily manipulated by one exaggerated episode in a TV program known for secretly filming gay bars, and prostitutes and criminals at work? But that, it would seem, is what exactly happened in this case, the worthies of various Catholic organizations being led by the nose by a program that habitually violates the journalistic injunction against deception.
And yet it may not have been as simple as that. The last thing conservative Catholics needed was some artist rubbing salt on their wounds. “Poleteismo” was viewed by conservative Catholics as an attack against their faith, the phallus on Christ’s face a declaration of war. All it took for these creatures to behave like a lynch mob was a rabble-rouser. Like “XXX.”
Carlos H. Conde is editor-at-large at interaksyon.com, the online news portal of TV5. He is also a freelance correspondent writing for different foreign publications. He can be reached at www.carlosconde.com.