I wasn’t planning to chime in on this issue, as much (perhaps too much) has been said about it already, by people who know better. But a friend (who’s an atheist, by the way) sent me a text about it, saying Cruz should’ve respected people’s religious beliefs and the sanctity of their images.
That, I agree with — we should respect other people’s beliefs. However, I don’t think Cruz leveled violence against Catholic ideology itself. It’s not like the installation screams that, say, Catholicism and Catholics are stupid and we should all just convert to, I dunno, Scientology. No — Cruz, true to the irreverence that characterizes so much of contemporary art, just defaced Catholic imagery (and we all know how imagery can be quite divorced from ideology — consider people who wear Che Guevarra shirts and don’t even know who the man is). He didn’t attack the religion — he just offended the sensibilities of the religious.
How can you tell an artist not to use such powerful, loaded symbols as Christ and the cross when the very project of his installation seems to be, as Charlson Ong put it, “metaphoric iconoclasm”? (Ong points out that Cruz “never physically smashed any religious icon. They are still everywhere, comfortable in their own spaces.”) His choice of the imagery to bastardize, to be sure, was made with ideological awareness — after all, if he drew hairy balls on the Zoroastrian Faravahar, would anybody give a shit? But this doesn’t mean that he attacks the belief itself — as I’ve said, aside from his “vandalism” and “blasphemy” of religious icons, his installation doesn’t seem to convey any statement against Catholic doctrine. His use of Catholic imagery merely springs from and affirms the ideology’s hegemonic status, the prevalence of its images, which, in line with Cruz’ project, make it an apt target for irreverence. (Indeed, Mykel Andrada suggests that there is some disparity between Cruz’ purported message and his use of symbols to execute it — therefore, interpretation of the installation is muddled, or put another way, What is it even saying?)
What is the installation saying? I don’t know. Cruz says it is a critique of idolatry. Seems to me he profaned those icons for the sake of inducing shock — thereby showing us how much value we attach to symbols, to the point that the signifier becomes more important than the signified (“He desecrated the symbol of our faith! Let us therefore clamor for the persecution — the bloody death — of this horrid man instead of practicing forgiveness and tolerance, as our faith preaches!).
What is the installation saying? I can’t confidently hazard an interpretation, as I wasn’t able to visit the exhibit and only saw photos of it online. And thanks to the government’s order to shut it down, I probably wouldn’t be able to see the real thing. That, I think, more than the message of Politeismo, is the hot button here. Indeed, greater critical discourse and furor are produced about the issues surrounding Cruz’ installation — secularism, freedom of expression, the autonomy of the CCP, art and society, etc. — than about the installation itself.
The appropriation — and profanation — of religious symbols for “art” is an old, tired thing. Why are people getting so worked up about the putterings of a heretofore obscure artist? Because it was hyped by the media; because the CBCP, as usual, is asserting its position as top bitch of the Catholic Republic of the Philippines; because the government caved in under the pressure of said top bitch, leading artists and pundits, who can be very touchy on the subject of freedom of expression, to raise hell.
I’ll leave people who know better to debate those issues and the merit of Cruz’ installation. But this, I’ll say: if Politeismo offends certain sectors of the population, let them boycott it, let them diss it — hell, let them write treatises critiquing it and excommunicate its creator if they please. But let not the state — which should be secular — censor it. Let not the state hinder thoughtful engagement and critical discussion. For the government to order a shutdown of the exhibit — which showcased the works of over thirty other artists — only reinforces the notion that in this country, it is unacceptable to float ideas contrary to those held by the majority — and what is art but for reflection, questioning, dialogue, subversion?