Philippine Art Across the Islands: Visayas

The cursory view of the raw data would seem a bit depressing. Outside of Cebu City, not much art writing is being done and for several reasons. The dismal data, however, should only lead us to question our paradigms and contemplate how art and writing-about-art should be defined and how we should properly identify the criteria for judging its current state.

We must start from the premise that what we talk about is not just art writing. It is about the act of writing about the practice of western art in a colonized country. The writing we talk about is also writing using the foreign-colonizing­-language or a language not native to this area. The question of the how these two interrelated disciplines are practiced here cannot help but be related to the process of acculturation. It is also a function of the quality of modernization as well as urbanization. The point is: when we say that local art writing is in a dismal and sorry state, that is not necessarily a bad thing nor does it require an apology from anyone, least of all the Visayan. The truth is, all these phenomena: art, art writing, modernity, urbanization, and so on, cannot be assessed in this country using straightforward and simple measures.

To say art writing is in a sorry state here is to say its purposes are not, or are only partly being met. But what are its purposes? The easiest are: “raising public awareness” and “facilitating the development of art” in the local setting. Given this mind set, we can identify the current drawbacks to effective art writing as: not enough publications, not enough space given by newspapers and not enough pay-incentive given by newspapers to art writing (some newspapers believe the art writers should not expect to get paid for writing about art since this should be their advocacy). “Art is not considered important enough to be given space in the local papers and has to compete along with the usual cultural events like beauty contests and fiestas. In Samar, artists write the press releases themselves in order to appear in the local dailies.”

In Tacloban City, Leyte, serious writers do not write criticism in the local papers. Why write when nobody reads? The more serious writers like Joycie Dorado-Alegre present academic papers, souvenir programs, even have blogs, like Dulce Cuna and siblings Jojo and Agnes de Veyra.

For those who do serious art writing, their contributions are considered an advocacy and can therefore be had for free. Most come from a pool of creative writers who are interested in the arts or are artists themselves. Merlie Alunan and Marjorie Evasco Pernia regularly write about art along with their other interests in the various publications in the Visayas. They regularly facilitate creative writing workshops. In Dumaguete, Ian Casocot and Moe Atega, products of these workshops, write about art and do occasional reviews.

This general assessment from Visayan contacts interviewed for this short essay validate what must be the tired old conclusion from many years of repeated assessing: All these signal the absence of a readership for art writing which unfortunately suggests also the absence of a market and audience for art itself. Or put more bluntly: Not much art writing because not much art. End of story! We can all go home now, folks.

Perhaps we should reassess the definitions we have set. Another premise would work much better: Art writing is not just about raising public awareness and facilitating art development and all that. Art writing is about setting down the narrative of our culture in its practice of art. Art writing is a worthy discipline, which should not be loaded down by market forces. Nor should it be loaded down by the limitations artists set for themselves. It should rather look critically at the cultural situation and identify possible directions for growth. Given this mindset, we can construct for ourselves a better picture of the importance of art writing in the regional centers.

We can use this paradigm also to assess the state of local art writing. Unfortunately, we still come to the same conclusion: Not much art writing! But it is not because there is not much art. We cannot blame the sorry state of one on the other. While the two disciplines are interrelated they are not inexorably attached. There is not much art writing here because few writers actually realize the importance of this particular type of writing.

Then there is the fact that this type of writing also requires a lot of courage. Most local artists react very badly to criticism. “At the moment, good critical reviews are difficult to publish without getting the ire of the artist and his group.” This was the experience of Allan Rivera in Iloilo City. When you offend one, you offend the whole tribe. Unless artists become mature enough to accept criticism, then the level of art writing will remain the way it is. There are, however, exceptions. One memorable instance was an exchange of views published in ‘Thought Balloon,” once a regular column in Sunstar Weekend, between Raymund Fernandez and Tito Cuevas. Fernandez wrote a review of Cuevas’s art and the rise of Modernism here to which Cuevas promptly responded. For a few weeks, the Cebu public read a heated debate on art in the papers. This, however, has not been repeated since then.

In 2001, Pusod Inc., a local artist organization sponsored an art-writing workshop in Cebu City. That workshop actually produced a number of art writers who write about art to this day. Of these, the most prolific are Roy Lumagbas, Radel Paredes, Gerard Pareja, and Raymund L. Fernandez. Over time, they have actually written critical reviews about artists and their works. Some artists still react negatively, but the more emotionally mature artists realize that unless they are ready to be critically reviewed, then all they should expect from writers are the usual society-page blurbs, infomercials, and forgettable press releases. A good critical review is actually more memorable with the public. Even so, there is not enough art writing currently being done.

Then there is the additional problem that the most active art writers in the region are also practicing artists. Visual artists Raymund Fernandez and Roy Lumagbas have regular columns in the Cebu Daily News. Radel Paredes and Richie Quijano regularly contribute to various local papers. Dumaguete painter Muffet Villegas also had a column on art. The Kabayaos also had a regular column in an Iloilo paper. The situation could improve radically if only we had writers who could write about art from a professional distance. But that is still a bit away into the future. But soon we will get there.

The main lesson to draw from all this is, that both art and art writing here could still stand some improvement. History has shown training workshops actually help.


Raymund and Estela Ocampo-Fernandez are faculty members of the Fine Arts Program of the University of the Philippines Cebu College in Lahug, Cebu City. Both served with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts Committee on Visual Arts as representatives for Visayas, Raymund in 1996-1998 and Estela from 1998-2000.

First Published: 18.07.2007 on Kakiseni

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