Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Artistic Freedom and the Right To Be Unhappy With It

(Click to Enlarge)

The Neo-Angono Mural of the National Press Club has been offered for sale to the Philippine Daily Inquirer (P910,000. As is, slightly bastardized; 32 ft by 8 ft full color mural). The Mural contains the likenesses of at least six living persons closely associated with that favorite newspaper including founding chair Eugenia Apostol; Editor-in-chief Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc; Editorial consultant Amando Doronila; and columnists Randy David, Juan Mercado, Conrado de Quiros. Also, the "central figure" in a red shirt is reading the Opinion Editorial Page of PDI. Although the offer to sell was made tongue in cheek, it is likely that the NPC's Louis Logarta would earnestly entertain any truly serious bid. If the mural is a paean to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, maybe they should be payin' for it, eh? But how did it come to this between National Press Club and the Neo Angono Artists Collective?

HOW DID IT COME TO THIS? Last August, NPC offered the Neo Angono Artists collective 910,000 pesos to do a mural in three months on the History of Press Freedom in the Philippines for its headquarters restaurant in Manila in time for its 55th anniversary last Oct. 26. NPC paid in full and took delivery two days before planning to unveil the mural with President Gloria Arroyo in attendance. But lo and behold the Mural did not seem to be about the History of Press Freedom at all, but rather a visual or graphic innuendo about the Current Events involving alleged extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. They knew that having the President unveil the Neo Angono mural, as delivered, would have been like the scene in The Godfather when a disrespectful Mafia don wakes up to a horse's severed head in his plush, plush bed!

Another PDI pundit (not in the mural) -- Raul Pangalangan (A Passion for Reason) likens the recent NPC Mural Brouhaha to Diego Rivera's disastrous Lenin mural for Rockefeller Center in 1933 in which the "fiery Mexican Marxist" made Vladimir Lenin the central figure of his mural for the main lobby of the RCA building at Rockefeller Center in New York City. Asked to remove or modify the face of Lenin, Rivera refused, offering instead to paint Abe Lincoln into the picture! Accused of anti-capitalist propagandizing, Diego Rivera famously declared that, "All art is propaganda!"

According to the Encyclopedia of Censorship Diego Rivera was called down from his high scaffolding while putting the finishing touches to Man at the Crossroads, was paid in full the balance of his commission, dismissed from the project, banned from the premises and his nearly finished mural discreetly covered with tarpaulin. The work was destroyed a few months later -- "pulverized with hammer and pick axe" -- and was never publicly displayed. The fate of Rivera's Mural neatly illustrates the point of Raul Pangalangan about ownership of art as physical objects. Since he had accepted payment in full for his mural, Diego Rivera could not prevent its "pulverization" by Rockefeller Center. Likewise, no one could prevent Diego Rivera from recreating his Mural, which is now some place in Mexico City, but not at Rockefeller Center in New York. This was a case of the customer not being happy with his purchase and exercising the ultimate option of not using it at all and accounting the financial loss under "tuition fees."

But NPC did not have the luxury of time that Rockefeller Center did. When NPC asked Neo Angono to make some changes after delivery of the Press Freedom but before unveiling, they got, "Nyet! Artists are resting!" In other words, the artists collective left their customer in a lurch. They refused to make any further changes since final payment was made and in some sense there was nothing NPC could do about it. Except to panic and go ahead with whatever modifications seemed necessary to save the unveiling from being a total embarrassment.

By pure coincidence, Diego Rivera was paid $21,000 for his "Man at theCrossroads" mural, or just over 900,000 pesos in today's money, which happens to be the price paid by the National Press Club for the mural made by the Neo Angono Artists Collective on the "History of Press Freedom" for its headquarters restaurant in Manila.

In a fit of panic, NPC decided to modify portions of the mural, as detailed by the artists in their Protest Letter. NPC is reaping a whirlwind of criticism for modifying the mural. They are even being accused of censorship over an "art work" entitled "The History of Press Freedom"! Especially after the NPC put in "a hideous bird monster in a cage" to replace some manifesto and tried to disguise Randy David as Mr. Spock in a hard hat talking to someone looking suspiciously like Conrad de Quiros, also in mechanical engineering camouflage and hard hat.

Edita and Jonas Burgos actually play a big role in the mural. It is the headline news story about them that Jose Rizal (looking like he popped out of a postage stamp) is reading in the Inquirer and discussing with a stoic Ninoy Aquino.

I was listening to ROY MABASA and CONRAD GENEROSO of the National Press Club on Media in Focus with Cheche Lazaro Thursday, along with former NPC President PDI's NEAL CRUZ and RICHARD GAPPI of the Neo-Angono Artists Collective. Mr. Gappi claimed they were given progress reports, thumbnail previews and several opportunities to view the work in progress. However, it also appears that there was a great big rush in the last two weeks to finish the work on time. as Mr. Gappi relates the collective had spent "many sleepless nights" busily working on the mural to a heroic completion. During a first attempt to deliver the mural, the NPC did not have payment in full ready, so the collective transported the mural back to Angono. Only after getting paid in full did NPC finally take possession.

The Neo Angono Artists Collective. explains the mural on their website:
"For this reason, it might initially escape belief and comprehension – and even solicit fun – that Joaquin “Chino” Roces is preventing a child (symbol for an emerging imperialist America) from shooting a bird resting on the street signage titled “Kalayaan”;Marcelo del Pilar rummaging through a garbage can for a cigarette stub and being furtively handed a letter by Mariano Ponce under a street sign labeled “La Solidaridad”; Eugenia Apostol smirking on the declaration of Martial Law; Epifanio de los Santos and Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc debating on the hot issues of the day; Antonio Luna, also an NPC hall of famer, being interviewed by journalists covering a rally of protesting journalists; or Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino listening pensively to Dr. Jose Rizal’s point on the issue of abduction and the “desaparecidos.”
Frankly, I find this somewhat cavalier mixing of the Living and the Dead a little macabre and irreverent. Or worse, corny. But artistic freedom is the most licentious of all the liberties, so I must let that aesthetic point pass as having been established and made viral by Diego Rivera.

Still it seems unreasonable to demand that NPC merely accept what the collective produced in the name of artistic freedom, since it is the NPC that has to live with the mural hanging in its restaurant for years to come. Perhaps it was unwise and desperate to have modified portions of the mural at all, but I think NPC has the right to be unhappy over what Neo Angono produced for them, how they rendered the History of Press Freedom as a side effect of the unknown plight of Jonas Burgos and ignored the main theme of Press Freedom with its rich panoply of possibilities using germane material.

Perhaps the essential point is that the artists collective ended up producing a Mural not about Press Freedom as their client NPC was expecting. Instead they made a mural about Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances. Whatever artistic or moral merit attaches to it regarding those issues is immaterial. If the NPC has any ground for unhappiness over the "work of art" that it paid 910,000 pesos for, it may well be the Mural's failure to address the agreed upon theme of Press Freedom in a manner pleasing and acceptable to the new owners. For though the Neo-Angono can rightfully claim that the living exemplars of press freedom "casually mingling" with "common and ordinary people" are indeed journalists and editors of note, the central theme is not Press Freedom as such, but Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances. This can be seen in the central thematic role played by Edita and Jonas Burgos, neither of whom is a journalist, but who are the headline story in the newspaper being read by Rizal and discussed with Ninoy Aquino.

As art, it may be considered bold or innovative to mix living, well known personalities with long-dead national heroes and national leaders (whose places in history are more or less fixed by their having already been dead from martyrdom for a long time). But I find it creepy and macabre.

If we imagine that NPC had contacted Neo Angono a year ago and was previewing the product for months before the opening on October 26, I don't imagine we would have had the controversy we have today. They would surely have worked things out according to the old fashioned business principle of "The customer is always right." and NPC would have a mural to display that it could not complain about or modify with any shred of justification. As it was, both Neo Angono and NPC got into time trouble, and when the final product was not to the complete satisfaction of NPC, what happened was perhaps inevitable.

In the final analysis, I don't think Neo Angono should have abandoned NPC in its hour of need. By doing so, it did not appreciate how seriously unhappy the NPC was about the Message in the Mural. By not sending someone to NPC as soon as they heard there was a big problem, Neo Angono had shown bad faith, seeming to be laughing all the way to the bank, though that might be an unfair image. But then when the NPC undertook the modifications, the artists claim they are outraged, oh revolted and outraged! However, it is most unlikely that NPC had at one time okayed a theme based on the Extrajudicial Killings issue and then suddenly changed its mind at the very end or after delivery. The NPC was genuinely unhappy with what was delivered at the very last minute when nought but the most desperate and ultimately gauche measures were left to the National Press Club.


The Wyzemoro has a perspective on Wahab Akbar by Samira Gutoc.


stuart-santiago said...

as with all commissioned work, the npc should have closely monitored the work while it was in progress, and conflicts over content should have been ironed out then. if conflicts proved irreconcileable, the npc could have stopped paying and found another group of artists to hack it.

DJB Rizalist said...

okay, but thanks for getting the point. It's true their 910,000 is tuition fee for the lesson that one does not order up artwork like a steak or a salad, which upon being served must either be eaten, returned or taken out.

In this case, NPC had indeed painted itself into a corner from which there was to be no easy way out if for some reason the artwork didn't do it for the buyer.

But I do claim they had a right to be unhappy, and that "artistic freedom" does not excuse Neo Angono from the charge that they left the client in a lurch!

stuart-santiago said...

i've done commissioned work myself and i never got paid the final balance until the client was happy. if npc was unhappy pala with the mural, why did they pay up? parang they became unhappy lang because the psg guys were unhappy.

DJB Rizalist said...

maybe it was time pressure. remember they had an oct. 26 anniversary date. I think npc did not realize what an awesome thing it is to commission a piece of art that is going to have to stand the test of time.

But I don't think they were happy with it then PSG made them unhappy with it. Listening to Mabasa and Generoso, it's clear that they were forced to make the modifications because they did not want to embarrass the President, or anybody else with it.

I think they would've rejected it even if the guest was not gma.

My main point really though is that Neo Angono just abandoned their client and told them to take it or leave it, they had already paid for it.

blackshama said...

Mixing the living and the dead in art may be creepy in a visual medium but is often used in literature.

I still hold on to my opinion that the mural's artistic merits are to say it kindly debatable.

If the artists took the money and ran (and then complained!) then what do we have to say about their artistic integrity?

But I have to disagree artistic freedom is NOT the most licentious of freedoms. Academic freedom is. This is the freedom that school administrators can claim that allows them squelch artistic freedom in campuses!

DJB Rizalist said...

that brings up the whole barrel of pickles regarding the priority of freedoms...

AdB said...

Bit off topic here Dean but
have just read this:

Government, MILF break stalemate on scope of Muslim homeland

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press
Last updated 08:09pm (Mla time) 11/15/2007

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- (UPDATE) The Philippine government reached an agreement Thursday with the country's main Islamic separatist group on carving out boundaries for a Muslim homeland in the conflict-ridden south, which they expect will lead to a peace accord in August.

Philippine officials have wrangled for years with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front about the extent of a territory that would fall under Muslim control in the impoverished Mindanao region -- the scene of a bloody, decades-long insurrection by guerrilla groups such as the MILF.


Do you happen to know what this whole new "treaty/agreement/whatever" covering the "the extent of a territory that would fall under Muslim control in the impoverished Mindanao" is all about?

What does "fall under Muslim control" mean?

I'd like to have your input very much.



Amadeo said...

In another age and to another commissioned artist, the contentious issue of artistic freedom also came to the fore. For an entirely different reason. It was for the nudes that Michelangelo painted in the various chapels.

He had his say because his patron pope backed him up.

But just the same, it did not prevent succeeding prelates from “altering” his many works. Like covering with cloth some of the nudes.

Funny, one justification for the nudes was that Michelangelo was simply portraying “naked” human truths.

Any sign of the “naked truth” in the Neo Angono mural?

AdB said...

Who will buy that? 200 thousand dollars for a gigantic but bastardized mural? Horridly expensive for what it is.

(I wouldn't even accept it even if given to me for a peso -- not my type of art.)

Best thing they can do is to chop it up in say, 4 m x 2 m and sell them off separately. Heh!


Hi Dean,

Thought this should be fun so am linking it here if you don't mind (and would be very happy to know your own results if you decide to do the test.)

For those who want to determine their political philosophical leaning, here’s a political compass test:

mattcd42 said...

I think some of what's missed in this article can be better understood if you look a bit at Diego Rivera's past. There's a great article on just that at:

DJB Rizalist said...

mattcd42, A warm welcome to Philippine Commentary. Thanks for the link, but could you be more explicit? What insight does Diego Rivera offer?