The Month of Arts

Passengers of LRT 1 and LRT 2 were feted last January 20 with flash performances from various groups and individuals tapped by National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA) to usher in the festivities calendared for February, the month of arts.  Reports described the reaction of the crowd as one of surprise unaccustomed as they were to finding themselves treated with various artistic shows while queuing for tickets or wiggling their way to the LRT coaches.  The efforts of  NCCA, as well as various cultural agencies and art groups, deserve to be lauded for their sustained campaign for the continuing public arts education.  Much remains to be done no doubt but given the sad reality of the place of arts in the national budget and government priority, not to mention the less than meager resources of arts communities themselves, one can only sigh with amazement when such a feat is successfully pulled off. 


But taking the element of surprise aside, it makes us wonder whether the performances merited anything more than curious glances from the commuters. It’s hard to imagine they would really pause to take in the dances, songs, on-the-spot painting or performance poetry staged for them.  If they simply move along while the show was going on, such reaction would not have been unusual by Philippine standards.  Not that the public won’t pay attention but the kind of attention to come from them would probably be a lot keener had it been a movie shooting of Bea Alonzo and  John Lloyd Cruz  that welcomed them at the train station. 


The ambivalence of Filipinos concerning arts is probably best reflected by the popular confusion that surrounds the words arte and art. Through some historical and  cultural mix up, the word arte, a derivative of the Spanish word for art has come to mean for most Filipinos as a gesture or behavior that borders on the artificial and frivolous,   A person is described as maarte, not because he is artistic, but because of certain actuations that are perceived as contrived.  He fails to evoke sympathy or good will due to expressions which are seen as incapable of being taken seriously. 


A corollary of this ambivalence would be the confusion between the words artista and artist, its English counterpart.  Artista, in Filipino, refers to showbiz personalities, that is, entertainment celebrities whose looks and talent capture wide public liking.  In former times, looks and talent were necessary dual requirements to qualify as artista.  These days however, it seems the qualifications have been relaxed so that one can become an artista on mere face value or some bodily enhancements.   These misplaced aesthetic criteria (or more pointedly, the lack of them) explain why despite their being excellent artists, outstanding members of the film industry like directors Marilou Diaz Abaya, Mike de Leon, Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka are never considered artista by popular standards. The same is true for writers like Pete Lacaba, Ricky Lee, Butch Dalisay or musicians like Willy Cruz, Rey Valera and George Canseco.  They bring in artistry into the movies they are once a part of yet they never reach the same stellar acclaim enjoyed by a Daniel Padilla or a Sir Chief except probably within the limited circles of people in the know.


The confusion between art and arte and the overshadowing of artists by artista in our consciousness are actually a result of our miseducation on the arts that have long alienated us from our own culture and creative traditions.  Our tastes have been so desensitized that we become easy captives of films like My Little Bossings which demand nothing from us in terms of engagement and sensibility.  We think of movies the way we think of TV and songs on radio.  They are our constant sources of quick entertainment to distract us from the discontents of modern living.  In some less complicated past, there was no divide between life and art for, in its bare simplicity, life itself was one aesthetic experience.  That was when rice plains were home to the songs of the wind and birds took pleasure in tree tops and tall grasses in their dances.  There was ritual in the rising and setting of the sun and folks could recite in their verses their version of the poetry of the moon and stars. It might even be thought that Fabian de la Rosa and Fernando Amorsolo did not really create art; they merely captured art in the scenes they painted half certain we would lose sight of them had they not immortalized them in their canvas the way we no longer see them now in the age of reclamation areas, gated communities and gigantic malls.


It doesn’t help that in our schools, art is relegated to the mere ornamental, something to add color to the celebrations of Linggo ng Wika, UN Day, Teachers’ Day, Foundation Day, field demonstration and Christmas party. The result is a generation after generation of students who harbor the unfortunate idea that art is an excess baggage;  that time spent on NVM Gonzales or Franz Arcellana or F. Sionil Jose is time wasted; that learning the Filipino of Rolando Tinio, Rio Alma and Alejandro Abadilla is a lost cause; that Sinulog and Dinagyang are but mammoth street parties. There seems to be an unconscious, unspoken effort to subordinate art to hard sciences and professional courses so students can acquire unhampered, so they say, the necessary skills to qualify them for jobs abroad.  The recent Kto12 educational reform of the government seems to affirm this.  The reform is introduced because our students, it says,  need to be ready and equipped for the global world.  Through this program, education, officially, has been reduced to training and skills acquisition. Arts and humanities have taken the back set for the sake of human resource importation.  One wonders which type of poverty is worse: empty wallets or barren soul?   When they earn their degrees, our graduates would fly out of the country hoping they can make it better elsewhere.  It is a sad irony that we sacrifice education on arts and humanities so we can send our young professionals abroad to places where citizens have nothing but supreme appreciation for things cultural and artistic.


Meanwhile, in our homeland, casinos, hotels and shopping complexes continue to rise.  We have no more public museums to house our shared memories or public galleries to shelter the expressions of our national spirit.  Parks and public squares where people used to congregate to enjoy the morning sun or sing and dance under the moonlight have given way to commercial spaces.  Festivals no longer mark our life cycles and have become mere marketing events for tourism.  When art is disjointed from life itself, we turn to movies not for stories they would remind us of but for the things we hope they would keep forgotten.


The function of art is to enhance our imagination, to strengthen our capacity to hope and to animate our desire for the different and the possible.  If only for that we need more artists in the government to infuse optimism and dynamism in the way we look at ourselves and in the manner we do things for and among each other.  I say artists, and not some artista who cannot even render justice to the word entertainment.  


Arts help us remember, beside the beautiful and the sublime, who we are and who we can be. Rose Fostanes sang her way to the finale of the recent X Factor Israel knowing there was more to her than her ordinary caregiving chores.  She blends her voice with those of Brillante Mendoza, Kenneth Cobunpue, Miguel Syjuco, Marivi Soliven, Rodel Tapaya and a host many other artists who give us reason to see our being Filipino in a different light.  February, the month of arts, invites us to take it from them.

(This piece was published in the online magazine under the title “Artists and artistas.” See