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April 26, 2004

KRISTINA T. SUBIDO

When we survey our crafts we see that the period of westernization, from 1565 to contemporary times, has simply provided new channels and interesting detours in the development in the crafts. In ideal situations, the basic tenets of good craft practice remains intact. These are quality standards that we as art educators and cultural workers should keep in mind and uphold whenever the opportunity arises.

I am calling it “Best Practice Crafting” just as they call that productivity-raising procedures in other industries. For craft has become an industry in itself– for better or for worse. This is the nice thing about craft as an area of study: it spans a whole range of creative expressions from the folk-art-as-museum-object to  product-of-industrial-design.

Happily, there is one word that spans just that range of expression. This is the word sining, which most Filipino writers today use as an equivalent for the English term “art.” However, the two words do not mean quite the same thing. Consulting two dictionaries, one dated 1860 and another dated 1914, we see that sining originally bore the sense of “reflection,” or “meditation.” It has the airy quality of a mental procedure. It is a way of doing things. Another aspect of sining is the skillful execution of minute details.

Commonly used in combination with the term likha, which means “creation,” likhang sining it may said refers to “a product of meditation or reflection done with care and precision.”

From these definitions, one can glean the elements of good sining or, as I would like to call it today, best practice crafting:

  1. The demand for and display of  technical dexterity.

     A quality most often associated with our local term for “artistic” (masining–endowed with sining) is skillful execution. Good workmanship is the basis of successful results. This requires a wide and deep understanding of one’s materials and the technicalities of the work. This starts from the careful preparation of materials followed by sure application of the proper craft techniques. Manual skillfulness is important as can be gleaned from such expressions as sigurado ang hagod (sureness of touch) and mahusay ang kamay (a deft hand). Fine finishing is also emphasized. Good artwork is pulido (polished), makinis (smooth) and malinis ang gawa (cleanly made). Fine craftsmanship is especially required of weavers. Archaeologists  have reported mistaking mat impressions on rust cakes for cloth. Until today, the best mats are thought to be those that are smooth to the touch and plaint. These qualities can only be achieved by painstakingly fine workmanship. In weaving cloth as well, the weaver’s ability to achieve a tightly level and even arrangement of the thread is considered a virtue On the other hand, consider the label for the material woven from coarse abaca fibers: bastos, which means “rude,” a word  we also used for people lacking in good manners.

  1. Elaborate, painstaking precision work.

     The well-made object is marked by “ingat at katalasan” — carefulness and precision — and great attention to detail. Filipinos tend to appreciate the most those things on which others have  demonstrably  poured their hard work — pinagpaguran. The more meticulous and laborious the work, the more it is admired. Ancient gold jewelry show this principle: many of them are beads, each bead carefully formed and textured. The famous Pampanga parol is a sum of many small parts as well. The gayly colored rice wafer chandeliers and buntings that decorate the procession  route of the f iesta in Lucban, Quezon in southern Luzon is made up of individually formed kiping. And what can be more precise than  the fibercraft of the T’boli, Mandaya and Bagobo of Mindanao and Ifugao of  northern Luzon, whose motifs are resist-dyed on threads before they are arranged on the loom?

  1. The work is time consuming.

      Very much related to individually-made multiplicities of part is the time it takes to make them. The more time spent on the creation, the more it is admired — pinaggugulan ng panahon. Not surprisingly, a synonym formasining is butingting or butingtingin meaning an expenditure of time by giving  much attention to minute details. In this light, we may appreciate why Filipinos seem to love deep, strong, and concentrated hues. Traditionally, intense colors can only be achieved by more frequent and longer immersions in the dye bath.

Note that the above descriptions make no distinction between what other writers call “art” and “craft”. Sining can also refer to paintings. Indeed, do not the early paintings in the miniaturismo style conform to the above ideas of good sining? It is interesting to recall that prior to their formal education, painter practiced their trade much like the prized craft of old, going from house to house to sell their services and organizing themselves into guilds.

Most of the characteristics which we observe in the fine quality Philippine crafts one finds, too, in Thai crafts. This is just added proof that the Southeast Asian foundation of our culture is still as strong as ever. The only difference is, one finds these characteristics and these quality standards applied more often and more commonly in Thailand. In our country they seem to be getting rarer and rarer that when one happens upon such level of artistry, chances are the practitioner is (or practitioners are) being considered for the manlilikha ng bayan award. It’s quite sad to think how something that used to be taken as common sense is now being treasured as uncommon genius.

Why is this happening? Allow me to theorize why our quality standards seem to be slipping.

The Thai generally categorize their art in two: classical arts which are associated with court culture and the popular arts which are associated with the rhythms of village life: birth, marriage, death and the seasons of agriculture. In the first case, refinement is not only insured but demanded by royal patronage; in the second, a strong religious fervor inspires the crafting. The result in both cases is craft production at a consistently high standards.

We, for our part, also generally categorize our art in two: (1) the “fine” arts associated with urbanized society  and the well-worn cliche “self-expression;” (2) “folk” arts associated with “cultural communities” and “traditional” societies. What separates the two is the benefit of formal education — and as it happens in our country — the degree of westernization. The result — at least for our crafts — has been a confusion of standards.

How did this happen? Our ways of crafting have not changed through years of western cultural domination. What has changed, however, is the way we have valued our handmade objects and this has had deep and lasting consequences for our craft practice.

In the late 1849s, an institution for formal instruction in the arts of illustration, painting and sculpture was reopened, replacing an earlier short-lived school, the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura (1821-34). With the opening of the second academy, reproductions of famous European , masterpieces and original paintings were held up as models for students to copy. Here was introduced the concept of fine art as we know it today: products of uniqueness, borne of individual imagination and valued for their fame. Note that the world for this concept wasarte, a Spanish word.

With the predominance of the western idea of the fine art masterpiece, the worth of the handcrafted object slid down to that of a lower level of creation. To the western mind, the mind is always superior to the body; intellectual stuff more important than things of practical nature. Craft objects, because they fill only practical not intellectual needs, appealing primarily to the body not to the mind, are therefore “culturally insignificant.” Bereft of any deeper meaning, it was easy for craft-making to degenerate into cheap manual labor.

On the other hand, the stage was set for the wholesale commodification of Philippine crafts. On the other hand, those ancient crafted object of high quality that had fallen to disuse because of the altered lifestyle of their communities became highly prized objects d’ art.

It is not surprising that the golden age of handicrafts (from about late 1910s) coincided with the craze among the western cultural elite for collecting  “primitive art”. During the early decade of this century, the American public school system in the Philippines became the machinery for turning local raw materials into standard designs for articles for export abroad. At the same time, “ethnograph specimens” from our various tribes found  their way into collections abroad. This is probably the root of our common but conflicting attitudes toward craft: profiting from its large volume production as export commodity while treating their inspirational source as art.

The brisk trade in handicrafts continued and in fact intensified during the 1970s to the 80s, with our government’s trade policies emphasizing the “non-traditional exports.” Today the Philippine export industry still relies heavily on the handcrafting as it drags its feet in developing fully-mechanized manufacturing capabilities. If Thai crafts are offered to gods and kings, more and more are current Philippine crafts are dedicated to commerce.

What used to be the produced of talented minds and hands for their own and their community’s consumptions have come to be produced by hired hands working under the direction  of design professionals catering to the needs of complete strangers. Laboring hands have an artistic control over their products. And since the products are not anymore meaningful than a meal ticket, if there is a faster, cheaper, less fussy way to do it, then pwede na.

Pwede na has become the standard approach not just to crafting but to everything else we are tasked to do. Perhaps something is structurally wrong with our economy that we have developed a talent for under-achieving. We keep holding back from really giving of ourselves in our schools, our jobs, may be even in our homes, in our products in our services. And that’s sad.

The problem is hindi pwdeng pwede na. If art is a reflection of who we are as a people, how can we allow ourselves to be less than who we can be? By cutting corners, we sell ourselves short.

The irony is, we now often hear the phrase “world class” to mean those very qualities that we have always been part of sining: technical dexterity; elaborate, painstaking work; well-seasoned in terms of the time devoted to production. Let us take this moment to recognize that  excellence is not imposed upon us by the world out there. It’s what we know deep within. Think of the meanings of sining and then let’s express our true selves.