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If Art is a Hammer: Portraits of Filipino artists as working stiffs

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By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento

LIKE THE gag reflex, the 1st of May gives rise to the usual public clamor for living wages and the end of contractualization. Artists are also vulnerable to such “precarity,” as these deplorable working conditions are politely termed. The so-called creative industries — from the performing artists in resorts to the piece-work crafters of fashion accessories — are generally unregulated. What does it behoove an unemployed, part-time jobber or the artist who may not even have a written contract for an occasional project, to register with the BIR and invest in stacks of official receipts which s/he will likely use once in a blue moon? A renowned writer, himself an independent contractor, was lumped with dance instructors when he registered with the BIR because professional writers were a nonentity on the BIR roster. He had to issue ORs to his many corporate clients, but his case is rare. Most Filipino artists do not have formal contracts or such a surfeit of projects. Many simply fall through the cracks, without the safety nets of SSS, PhilHealth, or Pag-Ibig.

On the Sunday before Labor Day, at the Concerned Artists of the Philippines’s public forum “If Art is a Hammer,” it was noted that artists can do manual work or service jobs, even get by as call center and sales agents, but not every cog in the endo machine can be an artist (“endo” is short for “end-of-contract” meaning contracts of less than six months). The forum’s theme came from Bertolt Brecht’s statement that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”

Easier said than done. In reality, the creative industries mirror the prevailing inequities, oppression and exploitation of the real world. Just as the top 1% control our economy, hogging wealth and resources, there is also a 1% of superstar artists. The gap is perceptibly widest in movies and TV. E.g., a respected multi-awarded character actor like Eddie Garcia commands P250,000 per shooting day (he does freebies for the indies). That’s still far below the seven figures daily for the most popular love teams. Experienced professionals like Joel Saracho, who shared these numbers, get paid in the low thousands for a day’s work. The thick broad bottom consists of the extras and production crew making minimum wage or a bit over.

Artists hired on a per project basis don’t get overtime pay. An award-winning indie filmmaker who shoots teleserye (soap operas) for a living told of how the major TV stations require six episodes per week at 52 sequences per episode. It’s impossible to complete these within the standard eight hour work day. If the superstar whose popularity carries the show comes late, or worse, is absent, the daily wage earners don’t get paid for showing up or waiting around. The little folks at the bottom must suck it in if they want to keep getting hired.

Roland Tolentino of the UP College of Mass Communications points out how the myth of the individual genius-artist redounds to the benefit of the top 1% who deliberately cultivate the artificial aura of scarcity, uniqueness, elite exclusivity, by which they manipulate the markets in their favor. The stratospheric auction house prices for works by a handful of visual artists, and of even fewer sculptors, epitomize this reality.




Dr. Tolentino estimates around 20% of creatives can live decently by their practice, but the vast majority of 80% must have other paid work to survive. Which brings up the plight of teachers, a common go-to job. The Department of Education does not provide for Humanities teachers. A Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) instructor/poet revealed that a starting instructor gets just P186.75 per hour and must fight for every hour of a teaching load. The Philippine National Police conducts random drug tests on students, faculty and other employees on the PUP campus. Red-tagging deters attempts at organizing.

The strike remains organized labor’s most potent weapon in the essential industries. It rarely works that way for artists who are generally not organized. Also, for one artist who goes down, many more are waiting to take her place. Locally, two high points were the proposed Original Pilipino Music (OPM) Development Act of 2014 and the Artists Welfare and Protection Bill. But where are they now?

A dancer-choreographer described how socialist countries are more supportive of contractual workers. In France, if workers do not exceed a certain number of work hours, they may collect unemployment benefits. Some international residencies provide for child care. A lighting designer spoke wistfully of how in Germany, theater technicians get a food subsidy and free cab rides after 9 p.m. On May 1, artists joined the rest of labor in their demand for “Lupa, Sahod, Trabaho at Karapatan (Land, Wages, Work and Justice),” shorthand for: Land to the Tillers; a Living Wage; End Contractualization; Uphold Human Rights.

The same lighting designer revealed that the original name of the Cultural Center of the Philippines was supposed to include “Theater for the Performing Arts,” but in reality, its theater production crew is so little valued that they wait weeks, even months after a project’s end to get paid. Thus, many Filipino performing artists and production crew have joined the overseas exodus to work in Disneyland, casinos, or on cruise ships.

A disappointed veteran animator warned against falling for the TESDA-accredited animation courses which only train students in the Japanese animé-style when Disney or Pixar style are more in demand. He claimed that studios like Imee Marcos’s CreaM (Creative Media and Film Society of the Philippines) could collect P25,000 per student from TESDA to train each new student, or from those like him who merely sought to upgrade their skills. Part of their training was having to make free animated shorts for the Revilla, Legarda, and Marcos campaigns. Truly some are smarter than others.