Arts & Leisure

BY SAM L. MARCELO, Senior Reporter

Looking after the cultural life of a nation

Posted on December 07, 2011

The wounds inflicted by James Fallows’ essay "A Damaged Culture: A New Philippines?" run deep. The controversial piece, published in 1987, tagged the country’s post-Marcos funk as a cultural glitch. "If the problem in the Philippines does not lie in the people themselves, what is the problem? I think it is cultural, and that it should be thought of as a failure of nationalism," wrote Mr. Fallows in the November issue of The Atlantic Monthly. His hypothesis, despite being more than two decades old, was a constant refrain during the 150th Rizal Anniversary Conference on Nation and Culture convened by National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose.

THE “IMBROGLIO” sparked by Mideo Cruz’s installation Kulo (photo) was the impetus for last Saturday’s conference on culture. -- MIDEO CRUZ
The event, a follow-up to the Solidarity Conference on "A Filipino Agenda for the 21st Century" held in 1987, gathered more than a hundred leading philanthropists, art patrons, educators, cultural workers, artists and creative writers. Moderated by Senator Edgardo J. Angara (who also moderated the Solidarity Conference), the discussion held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) on Saturday focused on "strengthening the cultural foundation of the nation." The papers and recommendations culled from the conference will be published in forthcoming book.

In his introduction, Mr. Jose explained that the genesis of the four-session event -- which had panels on Arts and Culture; Culture and Society; Media/Education, The New Communication Technologies; and Culture and the State -- was the "imbroglio" sparked by Kulo, a hotly debated exhibition held at CCP. "It’s about time again to reexamine our biases, our ideas about culture and the arts, and how we can help promote the building of a nation and a just society," said the National Artist.

The search for a Filipino identity, a talking point raised by several panelists, was questioned by Gilberto C. Teodoro, an independent consultant who served as Secretary of National Defense and ran for President in the 2010 elections.

"There is undoubtedly an attempt at enforced homogeneity in order to create a new Filipino, a Filipino language, a singular identity, a common heritage, perhaps in order to secure a better future. I disagree with this goal," he wrote in "Thoughts on Philippine Culture from a Non-Culturati Person."

During his presentation, he pointed out that nowhere in the Constitution is the Philippines referred to as a "nation," defined as an entity bound by a shared culture; instead, it is called a "republic," which is a form of state government. Following this logic, Mr. Teodoro argued that "Filipino" should be a political concept rather than a cultural one. This concept, he continued, "embodies the idea of belonging to a political community i.e. the Philippines rather than belonging to a nation."

According to Mr. Teodoro, membership in this community presupposes acceptance of certain core values (such as liberty, equality and freedom) and, most of all, "acceptance of the fact that the Philippines is a multicultural country and that there must be awareness of, tolerance and respect for this fact."

Ramon C. Sunico, who manages Cacho Publishing House and holds master’s degrees in history and philosophy (the former from the University of Sussex, the latter from Ateneo de Manila University), said that culture is inherently messy.

"About matters of taste, there is no discussion," he said, quoting the Latin maxim De gustibus non disputandum est. "And yet, here we are." "Art" and "culture," he continued, are horrible words that can mean anything and everything. "Culture itself is an essentially contested concept," he said. "The purpose of words like these is not to support resolutions or arrive at an answer. Culture does not subscribe to a recipe. Instead, it is the very pursuit of controversy and disagreement that enlighten who we are."


Amid these highly abstract and theoretical discussions on "metaculture," "hybridity," and "liquid modernity," Senator Leticia R. Shahani raised a practical question from the floor: "What state institution, even in a bureaucratic way, should look after the cultural life of our nation?"

The National Commission for Culture on the Arts (NCCA), she continued, was given its own budget for programs "independent of the machinations of Congress." She asked whether the National Endowment Fund for Culture and the Arts has lived up to its purpose. Ms. Shahani, who jointly authored a bill creating the NCCA, suggested that a review of present cultural institutions must be undertaken. "Are they doing their tasks?," she asked.

Senator Angara said that he has received such proposals and is looking into it. Meanwhile, Representative Teodoro A. Casiño, during his turn at the microphone, said that he always thought that the CCP and NCCA were supposed to answer the needs of the state in matters of culture. He agreed with Ms. Shahani’s call for a review and added that an inventory of cultural institutions for the purposes of restructuring would be helpful.

As of now, there is no oversight body responsible for setting the state’s cultural agenda. The National Museum, for example, is under the Department of Education; the same cannot be said for either the CCP or the NCCA. An official seated in the audience characterized the current setup as "magulo" (chaotic).

Malou L. Jacob, former NCCA executive director, defended the organization that booted her out and said that a new Department of Culture would undermine the democratic process of the NCCA, which is composed of 19 national committees, which, in turn, are composed of volunteers.

Jose Wendell P. Capili, professor of English, Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, pointed out that funding aside, the biggest problem of establishing a Department of Culture was one of leadership. "Who’s going to head it? Administration takes its toll on artists," he said. This sentiment was echoed by panelists such as fictionist and scriptwriter Charlson Ong who said that the only thing a people can ask of an artist is for him to do his work and do it well.