Penman No. 197: Why the Arts Should Matter

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Penman for Monday, April 25, 2016

 

FOR THE?first time ever, the University of the Philippines held a Knowledge Festival in Tagaytay last week, showcasing the most significant and interesting projects being undertaken by UP scientists, artists, and researchers, with an emphasis on interdisciplinarity. I was asked to present a keynote talk on “Why the Arts Should Matter.” Herewith, some excerpts:

It has become practically a cliché to say that our lives, and certainly our learning, would not be complete without some appreciation of the humanities. Our tradition of liberal education has primed us to the necessity of cultivating the “well-rounded individual” schooled in the basics of various disciplines.

Within my own field, I often find myself arguing for the importance of being able to adopt a rationalist outlook, of grounding our artistic judgments and perceptions on a concrete appreciation of our economic, social, and political realities. I’ve always urged my creative writing students to take an active interest in history, technology, business, and public policy as a means of broadening their vision and enriching their material as writers.

But conversely, let me ask: Why indeed are the arts and humanities important? I’ll turn to conventional wisdom and quote what should already be obvious, from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities:

“The humanities enrich and ennoble us, and their pursuit would be worthwhile even if they were not socially useful. But in fact, the humanities are socially useful. They fulfill vitally important needs for critical and imaginative thinking about the issues that confront us as citizens and as human beings…. We need the humanities. Without them we cannot possibly govern ourselves wisely or well.”

What strikes me here is the word “govern,” which seems to me to be of utmost importance to us at this juncture of our history, and which is key to our topic today. The role of the humanities in our intellectual and cultural life is to enable us to govern ourselves wisely and well. They deal with issues and value judgments, with defining the commonalities and differences of human experience, hopefully toward an affirmation of our most positive human traits, such as the need to work together as families, communities, and societies. In sum, they help us agree on a common stake, based on which we can make plans, make decisions, and take action.

That notion of a common stake is crucial, especially on this eve of one of the most contested elections in our history. Despite all the predictable rhetoric (and the real need) for national unity, we find it difficult to unite beyond short-term political expediency because we remain unable to agree on our most common ideals—the national dream, as it were, or the direction of the national narrative. What is our story? Who is its hero? Are we looking at an unfolding tragedy, a realist drama, or a romantic myth? To go further, what is important to us as a people? Where do we want to go? What price are we willing to pay to get there?

These are questions that are answerable less by scientific research and inquiry than by artistic imagination and insight. It will be mainly the humanities and the social sciences that will provide that vision, in all its clarities and ambiguities, as it will be science and technology that will provide the means.

This does not mean that scientists and engineers will have little or nothing to contribute to the crafting of this vision; I firmly believe they should, and that one of our worst mistakes has been the fact that we have largely left national policy to the politicians, the priests, the lawyers, the soldiers, and the merchants. Scientists have had little say—and artists even less—in the running of this country and in plotting its direction. We may canonize our boxing champions and beauty queens—and even elect them senator—while our National Scientists and National Artists languish in obscurity and indifference.

Ours is an appallingly innumerate society. Most of our people do not know the simplest numbers that describe our lives, and much less what they mean. We are raised on concepts like the national flower and the national bird and the national tree, but even in college we are hard put to say what the national population, the national birth rate, or the Gross Domestic Product is, and why they matter. This innumeracy is balanced, sadly, by cultural illiteracy. Our notion of culture often consists of pretty images, pleasant melodies, theatrical gestures, and desirable objects.

We have much to do by way of cultural education, and artistic expression is a vital means by which this can be achieved. The arts are the key to those parts of us that reason and logic alone cannot reach.

But I came here this morning to go beyond the obvious, and to present an aspect of the arts that few national and even academic policymakers ever think about, and it’s this: the arts should matter not only because they’re good for the soul, but because they’re good for the body as well—taking the body to mean our economic and material well-being. In simple words, and moving from the philosophical to the practical sphere, the arts can mean big business.

The arts underlie what have been called “creative industries,” and these industries have made tremendous contributions to the economies of countries as diverse as the US, the UK, China, Japan, Brazil, and Thailand.

In 2009, when the Joint Foreign Chambers of the Philippines initiated a focus group discussion on creative industries in the Philippines, they defined the sector as embracing “a wide array of subsectors including advertising, animation, architecture, broadcast arts, crafts, culinary arts, cultural/heritage activities, design, film, literature, music, new media, performing arts, publishing, and visual arts.”

In 2010—the last year for which I have solid figures—copyright-based industries or CBIs contributed more than P661.23 billion to the economy, according to the Intellectual Property Organization of the Philippines. In GDP terms, the economic contribution of CBIs climbed from 4.82 percent in 2006 to 7.34 percent in 2010. Core CBIs comprising companies in the arts, media, and advertising largely accounted for this surge. A corresponding rise in employment occurred in the sector, from 11.1 percent of the total number of jobs in 2006 to 14.14 percent four years later.

There seems to be a greater awareness on the Philippine government’s part of the economic utility of our artistic talent. In 2012, for example, RA 10557 was passed to promote a “national design policy” highlighting “the use of design as a strategic tool for economic competitiveness and social innovation.”

However, culture as a whole remains a low priority, often subsumed to other activities like tourism, entertainment, and sports. And it’s getting worse; very recently, cultural funding by the NCCA—the largest source of government funding for the arts—practically dried up because of onerous conditions imposed on cultural organizations in the wake of the pork-barrel scam, requiring them to undergo a tedious accreditation process by, of all things, the DSWD. Unlike many progressive countries, we do not even see it fit to have a standalone Department of Culture, so the DBM and even the DSWD can push the NCCA around.

We need to see the arts as more than a frivolous diversion that keeps on drawing funds without producing appreciable pay-offs, like an exotic and expensive pet you keep around the house, but rather as an area of strategic and profitable investment that will yield both moral and material dividends. Just as we need to develop more PhD-level scientists and researchers, we need to support advanced practitioners and theorists in the arts, as they have every capability to achieve world-class status, with the right incentives.

Let me end with a message—perhaps even a plea—to those who hold the purse-strings of our institutions. That journal, that play, that exhibit, that concert, or that workshop is always more than a line-item expense. Supporting and patronizing these artistic endeavors is the price we pay to understand ourselves in all our complex, and wondrously unquantifiable, humanity—and also, in ways you may never expect, to create new knowledge and new wealth in many forms.

 

Penman No. 196: A Frenchman in Jalajala

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Penman for Monday, April 18, 2016

 

I USUALLY?ask my wife Beng to ride out with me on a day trip during the Holy Week break, and this year our destination was rather unusual, in that it never figures in the travel plans of Manile?os, although it’s a short and pleasant drive from Quezon City or Ortigas. We took the scenic route from Diliman via Antipolo, Teresa, and Morong, and soon found ourselves following the lakeshore of Laguna de Bay on the peninsula of Jalajala, Rizal, described by the guidebook as “a fourth-class municipality with a population of 30,074 people.”

We were there on the trail of an extraordinary author and adventurer who, nearly two centuries ago, had lived in Jalajala, and had written about his sojourn in a book that?had been a favorite of mine for 40 years.

The book was Paul Proust de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines (subsequently expanded under the title of Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines), and I had recently acquired a copy on eBay, all the way from the UK—the first English edition published by James and Henry Vizetelly, undated but very likely from 1853, a year ahead of the American edition published by Harper & Bros. in 1854. The copy was far from mint, but it was in its original binding and still very readable, and wonderfully illustrated with engravings of local scenes.

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Gironiere was an adventurer from France who came to the Philippines in 1819 in his early 20s as a ship’s surgeon and stayed on for the next two decades, establishing himself as a landlord and farmer in what today is Jalajala, Rizal. His travails begin shortly after his arrival on the ship Cultivateur, and his account of a massacre shows why his book is—in that awful word coined by book reviewers—“unputdownable”:

I had only resided a short time at Cavite when that terrible scourge, the cholera, broke out at Manilla, in September, 1820, and quickly ravaged the whole island. Within a few days of its first appearance the epidemic spread rapidly; the Indians succumbed by thousands; at all hours of the day and of the night the streets were crowded with the dead-carts. Next to the fright occasioned by the epidemic, quickly succeeded rage and despair. The Indians said, one to another, that the strangers poisoned the rivers and the fountains, in order to destroy the native population and possess themselves of the Philippines.

On the 9th October, 1820 … a dreadful massacre commenced at Manilla and at Cavite…Almost all the French who resided at Manilla were slain, and their houses pillaged and destroyed. The carnage only ceased when there were no longer any victims.?

…Four hundred Indians surrounded me; the only way of dealing with them was by audacity. I said in Tagaloc to the Indian who had attempted to stab the captain: “You are a scoundrel.” The Indian sprang towards me; he raised his arm: I struck him on the head with a cane which I held in my hand; he waited in astonishment for a moment, and then returned towards his companions to excite them. Daggers were drawn on every side; the crowd formed a circle around me, which gradually concentrated. Mysterious influence of the white man over his coloured brother! Of all these four hundred Indians, not one dared attack me the first; they all wished to strike together. Suddenly a native soldier, armed with a musket, broke through the crowd; he struck down my adversary, took away his dagger, and holding his musket by the bayonet end, he swung it round and round his head, thus enlarging the circle at first, and then dispersing a portion of my enemies. “Fly, sir!” said my liberator; “now that I am here, no one will touch a hair of your head.” In fact the crowd divided, and left me a free passage. I was saved, without knowing by whom, or for what reason, until the native soldier called after me: “You attended my wife who was sick, and you never asked payment of me. I now settle my debt.”

I had first read the book a long time ago, and kept my copy of Adventures, in a Filipiniana Book Guild edition reprinted locally in paperback by Burke-Miailhe in 1972, with a foreword by the eminent historian and economist Benito J. Legarda. In his foreword, Dr. Legarda says that Gironiere’s book was “probably the best seller among books about the Philippines in the 19th century,” noting that “What attracted the 19th century reader was of course the narration of several adventures, at that time considered unusual or bizarre. Among them may be enumerated the killing of man-eating crocodiles, the hunting of wild carabaos, the exploration of caves, the customs of pagan tribes, and the adventures of those caught in captivity by Moro pirates.”

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While granting that Gironiere’s accounts may have taken certain fanciful liberties, Legarda also considers the many real contributions the Frenchman made to his adopted soil, particularly as an agricultural pioneer who planted coffee, abaca, indigo, and rice on his 2,400-hectare estate in Jalajala, then part of Morong. Of Jalajala, Gironiere would write that it was “the greatest game preserve in the island: wild boars, deer, buffaloes, fowls, quail, snipe, pigeons of fifteen or twenty different varieties, parrots in short all sorts of birds abound in them.”

Gironiere returned to France in 1839, crushed by the deaths of his son, daughter, and wife, and he eventually remarried, and yet nothing, he said, “could induce me to forget my Indians, Jala-Jala, and my solitary excursions in the virgin forests. The society of men reared in extreme civilisation could not efface from my memory my past modest life.”

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Was there anything left of Gironiere’s vast estate? All I could find on the Internet was a marker put up by the National Historical Institute in 1978 on what presumably had been his property, so I resolved to find at least that. We were there on the Wednesday of Holy Week, so I knew I had to catch someone at the municipio before it closed for the half-day, and fortunately a kind gentleman from the agriculturist’s office recognized the marker and offered to lead us there. And a short drive later, there it was, on a lot in the shade of towering acacia trees.

Nothing else would have suggested Gironiere’s presence, except possibly a stump of bricks in a corner of the lot. Not too far away was the water’s edge, and the slim profile of Talim Island, which Gironiere would have seen out his window. I struggled to imagine this spot as the center of a visiting Frenchman’s adopted life and holdings, his pursuit of bats and lizards, crocodiles and gold dust.

I didn’t feel let down; I was looking at an empty stage, but I knew the play, and I could hear the lead actor’s parting words: “Overwhelmed by the weight of troubles and of the laborious works I had executed, there was only one wish to excite me, and that was, to see France again; and yet my recollections took me continually back to Jala-Jala. Poor little corner of the globe… where my best years were spent in a life of labour, of emotions, of happiness, and of bitterness! Poor Indians! who loved me so much! I was never to see you again! We were soon to be separated by the immensity of the ocean.”

Penman No. 195: In the Afterglow

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Penman for Sunday, April 10, 2016

 

 

AS MANY?of you know by now, in the early hours of April 1st, a Friday, the UP Faculty Center went up in smoke. I was playing poker at my usual haunt, the Metro Card Club in Pasig, when I got a flurry of text messages from Krip Yuson, who had just heard of the fire on Facebook. Distraught, Krip sent me pictures of the unfolding scene—flames were billowing out of the FC’s upper floors, and it was clear that nothing and no one could possibly survive such a catastrophic event. I thanked Krip for the heads-up, put my cards down, and drove off to UP to see the fire for myself.

We live on campus, in a faculty bungalow on Juan Luna Street, a ten-minute walk from the FC, so UP was literally home for me. But I also held office at the FC, in the English Department, and the FC had been my official address for over 30 years since I began teaching in 1984. As I drove to Diliman I thought of my room, FC 1036, which I had had to myself since I came home from graduate school in 1991; before that, I’d shared FC 1012 with the late Angelito Santos and Ernie Bitonio, who became a lawyer and labor official.

Anyone who’s studied at UP Diliman would have gone through the FC at one point or another, and the place was rife with tales not only of intellectual and political adventure, but also of mischief of a baser, if more entertaining, nature. My favorite one, possibly apocryphal, had to do with an eminent lady professor going out on the window ledge and hanging on for dear life to spy on a neighbor whom she suspected of having an assignation with a student. Another hand-me-down scene involved two feuding scholars—one delivering a professorial chair lecture in CM Recto Hall while her nemesis handed out a vitriolic flyer at the door to anyone coming in.

It’s funny how the tragic can provoke the comic—and the professorial life certainly doesn’t lack for evidence of human frailty and folly—but it’s as good a response as any to personal loss, which was what the FC fire was really about. True, we lost a campus landmark and an academic institution. But buildings can be rebuilt—and the half-century-old FC was long overdue, anyway, for a massive renovation.

The FC’s subdivision into departments and then into individual rooms and cubicles guaranteed that each little corner would become treasured (and jealously guarded) personal space—not just mini-offices but mini-libraries and mini-galleries, showcases of both tradition and individual talent. Aside from the usual family pictures and diplomas (of which I actually saw precious few on display, perhaps in tacit admission of the silliness of flaunting one’s PhD in a boatload of them), shelves full of precious books and walls hung with choice art described the typical FC room, and each room’s state of order or chaos indelibly imprinted the tenant’s character on the visitor’s mind.

In UP, with historically low salaries and precious few incentives, a room of one’s own is an earned privilege. Professors are kings, and their offices are their castles and citadels, open to students and colleagues but impregnable to the unwelcome (except during martial law, when the military marched into the FC willy-nilly in search of Redheads). During the Diliman Commune in 1971, we’d renamed the place “Amado Guerrero Hall,” after the nom de guerre of Joma Sison, who had been an instructor with the English department.

Once aflame with revolution, now it was literally on fire, and three hours after the fire began, I watched as an eerie orange glow illuminated its interior. The text messages had shown tongues of fire curling out the windows, but the blaze had mellowed down a bit when I got there. Had I arrived at its peak, I would have been too excited to feel pain, but its muted state invited contemplation, which invited melancholy. I stood outside the building facing our department, facing my corridor, and understood that very little, if anything, would survive. (And of course the scene was not without its black—or should I say its blackened—humor; I overheard an exhausted fireman asking, “Does anyone have a cigarette?” I can’t write this account without thanking the dozens of firemen from all over who battled that inferno—you all deserved a good puff afterward.)

As my fellow FC denizens would do in the coming days, I began taking stock of what I was losing even as I watched: a Joya nude (one of two that Beng had saved from her days at Fine Arts; thankfully we had given one to our daughter Demi); a large giclée print of lilies gifted to us by Jaime Zobel; two paintings we had bought from a young Jason Moss; a National Book Award trophy by Agnes Arellano in the shape of a typewriter, my favorite among all my illustrious paperweights; my TOYM trophy by Napoleon Abueva, which, meaning no disrespect, did double duty as a hat rack; two of Beng’s serene waterscapes, which I had commandeered from her exhibitions; and a drypoint portrait that I had made myself (in another life as a printmaker) of her whom I was yet courting.

There were the books: among many others, a first edition of Without Seeing the Dawn, signed by its first owner, the novelist Zoilo Galang; a signed copy of Villa Magdalena by Bienvenido Santos; more first editions of NVM Gonzalez, Nick Joaquin, and F. Sionil Jose; and a copy of Ninoy Aquino’s prison testament, which Cory Aquino had signed and gifted to me in thanks for some speeches I had happily done for her pro bono.

And then of course there were my own books and papers—file copies of nearly all my books, and assorted publications, including 20 copies of the first printing of Penmanship, whose special paper I treasured and therefore hoarded; and my only copy of my dissertation. Luckily I had left only one of my fountain pens in the office, a Conklin desk set from around 1925, and a handsome crystal inkwell from Barcelona. Most of these could be replaced, but not the letters of friends and students over 30 years, nor the cane chair handmade by my late father-in-law, on which I took many a siesta.

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In the end, I found myself mumbling, “It’s all just things,” but of course it wasn’t. Men don’t grieve well, and over the next few days I grew increasingly sullen and irritable. Last Monday I joined a supervised foray into the burnt-out premises, just to see what we could recover. Almost everything we knew and owned had turned to mounds of char, which remained warm and smoky beneath our booted feet. From my blighted corner I picked up a ceramic mug that had lost its bottom. I also rescued a porcelain guan yin that belonged to Jing Hidalgo, and the ravaged hulk of a Royal typewriter I had given Isabel Mooney two decades earlier. We staggered out with our loot, laughing, and then the desolation hit us.

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My grandmother Mamay used to sing us a lullaby which Ilonggos will recognize, about how life and sweet things will simply drift up and away in bitter smoke, and that weekend some of that life and some of that sweetness rose up into the air.

“We Pinoys are disaster-proof,” I tweeted at some point, mindful of how small our plaints seemed compared to a Yolanda. I do believe that, and we literary types have probably used up all our phoenix metaphors in the fire’s afterglow. But I’ve also always believed in proper goodbyes, so before we haul in the new furniture into the inevitable new FC, here’s mine, to ash-covered memory.

(If you want to tour the aftermath of the FC fire with me, see the video here.)

Penman No. 194: A Tree Grows at the Met

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Penman for Monday, April 4, 2016

 

 

THE FIRST?and last time I saw a show at the Manila Metropolitan Theater must have been in the 1990s, for a production of Nick Joaquin’s “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.” The theater was in fine shape then, and I recall being as enthralled by the place itself as by the spectacle onstage.

As a young boy in the early ‘60s, my father had worked at the old Department of Public Works building across Plaza Lawton (before they became the Post Office and Liwasang Bonifacio), and I had often tagged along to play with his red-and-blue pencils and his swivel chair. The most entrancing element in that locale, truth to tell, was the giant pot above the old Insular Ice Plant that spewed what seemed to be a steady stream of boiling water into a waiting coffee cup; but my eyes would stray to the strange pinkish building in the distance and I would wonder what went on there and what it held.

I got my answer, thanks to Nick Joaquin, but a few Sundays ago, I had an even more amazing opportunity to know the Met more intimately than I would ever have imagined. Sadly the intimacy was that which might exist between a doctor and a patient, like a probe of cold steel into some tubercular organ.

My wife Beng belongs to Kasibulan, a group of women artists, and they had been invited to do a sketching session at the old theater that Sunday morning, alongside a cleanup operation to be undertaken by volunteers. Did I want to come along, perhaps to take pictures, or at least hold bags and run errands for the ladies as they drew arches and vanishing points? Of course I did.

But before I go any further, especially for the benefit of our millennial readers, let me give a backgrounder on the Met and its sorry fate.

When the Manila Metropolitan Theater opened on December 10, 1931, it was an architectural wonder to behold and to step into—an Oriental palace in pink coral, crowned by exquisite minarets, statues, sculpture, and tilework. The overall style was Art Deco, the rage at the time, spilling over from the West but adapted to its new setting in the East. It could seat almost 1,700 people, and it had been put together and adorned by some of Manila’s finest architectural and artistic talents—designed by Juan Marcos Arellano, built by Pedro Siochi and Co., and decorated by the Italian sculptor Francesco Riccardo Monti, the sculptor Isabelo Tampinco, the future National Artist Fernando Amorsolo, and by Juan Arellano’s brother Arcadio.

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Erected near the site of its predecessor, the Teatro del Principe Alfonso XII which burned down in 1867, the Metropolitan was meant to be the city’s premier cultural venue, a showcase of the Filipino artistic genius. In its heyday, it hosted celebrated singers such as Jovita Fuentes and Atang de la Rama; from highbrow opera to the more popular zarzuela and vaudeville, the Met had the best to offer. Though damaged during the war, it was rebuilt and continued to be a haven for artists and entertainers until it began to decline in the 1960s, as other venues—and the growth of moviehouses in such places as Avenida Rizal, Escolta, and Cubao, followed by the establishment of the posh and modern Cultural Center—gained primacy among audiences.

At one point or other in its slide to abject decrepitude, the Met became a boxing arena, a movie set, a martial arts studio, a gay bar, an ice cream parlor, a TV stage, and a refuge for the homeless, among other incarnations. In 1978, Imelda Marcos took an interest and had the theater restored to its old glory, but then it fell again into disrepair, and was shut down in 1996 in a wrangle over ownership between the city government and the GSIS. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Mayor Fred Lim renovated and reopened it in 2010, when it was declared a “National Treasure” by the National Museum, but yet again it succumbed to politics, bureaucracy, and benign neglect; after a concert by the rock band Wolfgang in mid-2011, it was locked up by the GSIS.

In July last year, the ownership question was finally settled with the GSIS selling the property off to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), and shortly after the NCCA received P270 million from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) for a fourth and hopefully final restoration, which the NCCA expects to complete by 2017.

It was this Met that we entered that Sunday. We were greeted by my UP colleague and one of the restoration project’s consultant-architects, Gerard Lico, who assigned two young but very capable juniors to guide our group on an all-access tour of the building. The lobby was buzzing with the enthusiasm of student volunteers from National University who, after an orientation and a safety briefing, filed into the structure behind their team leaders.

We followed them into a dark and cavernous hulk (the electricity had yet to be brought back), and encountered a touching mix of fragility and resilience. The Met had to be cleaned prior to restoration, and thus we were being privileged to see it at its most hapless state. There was dust and rust everywhere, and the wooden floorboards, reduced to a pulp, were crumbling beneath our feet.

Even so it demanded attention and respect, and we trod slowly, reverentially. Through the squalor emanated a lingering magnificence—the echoes of long-stilled operas, the footfalls of performers scurrying down the corridors. In one room was a tangled mass of costumes—a sailor outfit unmistakably from The Sound of Music—and when we stepped out onto the broad stage, you almost expected the spotlights to burst into life and the phantom audience to roar in approval. There was a hole in the stage floor and water in the orchestra pit, but nothing, it seemed, beyond repair, beyond human care.

Out on the roofdeck, beneath the Moorish spires and the batik-inspired tiles, a small tree had sunk its rope-like roots into the masonry. I found myself hoping that it would be spared the restorer’s saw. Reprieves beget reprieves, and it would provide a fine organic testament to the Metropolitan’s endurance. (See more pics from our walking tour here.)

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