Playing catch-up

Before I continue, I note that in the Northern Hemisphere, today starts the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year’s focus is on peace in the Holy Land, especially in Jerusalem, and it is something for which people must work and pray. Increasingly, Christians are facing threats to their existence in the Middle East, and I think it is the vocation of Christians who chronologically stand between Jews and Muslims to witness to the power of a God who is at once transcendent yet very much among humanity–a witness which is at the foundation of true democracy and human rights. Yes, so-called “secular” democracy has a theo-logical foundation, and the whitewashing of this account is one of the great tragedies of our time, even by the churches themselves.

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One of the interesting things I am learning about art in the Philippines these days is that this country is at least one generation behind when it comes to the visual arts. The major commercial galleries and those wanting to play catch-up prioritize a kind of art from which many Western countries have moved, and it would not be surprising if this year, a year marking a certain milestone, will prove to be a little tedious for those who are writing about the arts–unless they look hard enough. The market, however, is still very much open to that kind of art, and this is mainly because our neighbors are playing the same catching-up game as we are.

I have also learned that catching up is easier in two spheres than in anything else. For one, street art is fast becoming respectable in the US and Europe where the playfully subversive is equally becoming normative in the post-modern context. Here, we see the trend being manifest in the collaborative work by a key street art collective, Pilipinas Street Plan, with the Lopez Museum and Manuel Ocampo’s recent group show at the Manila Contemporary gallery, respectively. The growth of the trend is primarily attributable to the Internet and the ease by which information and art can be shared across continents. (There is also the question of the commonality of the language, as pointed out to me by an interlocutor.) It remains to see whether this will be a flash in the pan, because I suspect that the art market here is far too conservative for a trend such as this one.

Surprisingly, Manila Contemporary, which is a gallery known to be more solidly in the camp of which I spoke, is opening a show concerning another of the key trends, which is the legitimation of graphic design and illustration as a form of art. I consider 2010 a watershed year for the graphic design/illustrative arts community primarily because of the opening of the Yupangco-run Collective in Makati and the consequent availability of alternative art spaces such as Vinyl on Vinyl Urban. (Much of the community is centred on the Makati area, where the major advertising agencies are based.) The other reason is the first staging of Graphika Manila, the first major event of its kind for the community, and a few months later, the Philippine Graphic Design Awards.

I find these trends intertwining in many ways because the sensibilities are similar, and more importantly because the art and commerce issue finds clearer resolution with the graphic design/illustrative art community than anywhere else. They have made peace with the market and we all benefit from it, both the big corporations and the art galleries.

But there is a challenge which was brought to my attention recently. The creative arts form a small community, and there is much blurring of boundaries in practice. Would it not be much better, it is argued, for the different “communities” to converge and take off in previously unknown directions? The origins of the concept which became Cubao X, a place whose impending death I can attribute to the abject failure of some communities to open themselves to working with others, is precisely in that convergence. 2011 is a time to reassess whether the arts in the Philippines ought to be crossing boundaries more often than is being done now.

I think we skipped about five hundred years in the process of building our society, and part of that skipping involves getting past the Middle Ages far too quickly. Counter-intuitive, yes, but one need not look further than the last medieval city on our planet to see what I mean. The City of London is a very modern version of a system of government, or a way of organizing the city, that emerged in Europe, and it holds lessons for the arts communities.

All the trades in medieval cities were organized into guilds. They had the key function of ensuring that skills were passed on from one generation to the next, especially by mentoring younger persons who were invariably apprenticed to their members. But they had another function, equally important: together, they collectively ensured the welfare of the city. The guilds were social organizations that got the members of their respective professions together. The guilds of the Middle Ages had a responsibility to the community. They did so by being part of the government, and (at the time) a part of the wider religious community.
Next time, I will revisit exactly why the “guild system” as it emerged in our setting has to be re-cast in a more interdisciplinary and, yes, socially responsible direction.

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