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September 01, 2003

BIENVENIDO L. LUMBERA

The controversy over the GSIS purchase of Juan Luna’s Parisian Life at P45.4 million might seem to be an overblown squabble between Winston Garcia and individuals questioning the use of millions from GSIS funds to keep what has been described as a “minor Luna” in the Philippines. The sound and fury, however, ought to stir in the public mind some thinking on the cost of saving our cultural heritage. Such cost, it turns out, involves a hierarchy of values that requires looking into so that cultural heritage advocates may be guided in the future when they have to rack up priorities.
At the outset, it would help to think out the root of the controversy. Two perspectives on national cultural heritage projects may be discerned from the statements in media by those who applaud Garcia’s investment savvy and by those who find it extravagant.

Among mainstream experts and academics involved in the arts, it is usual to disdain what is perceived to be monetization of aesthetic values, and to focus solely on non-material rewards a prized art object brings to the collector, institution or a presumed audience. The aesthetic worth of such an object is assumed to derive from intrinsic qualities seen as immutable and timeless, thus allowing it to transcend considerations of cost. Juan Luna is a master Filipino painter who was a colonial subject, and Parisian Life manifests the superlative skill and art that placed him above native Spaniards when Spoliarium won the gold medal at the Exposicion General de Bellas Artes in Madrid in 1884. When aesthetics is not the sole basis for its valuation, the art object is seen to have acquired its worth from the history behind it. In the case of Parisian Life, the presence of three men (Luna, Jose Rizal and Antonio Bautista) in the background of the painting brings to mind the Reform Movement waged in Europe by scions of upper-class families in nineteenth century Philippine society. This detail is seen as having enhanced the historical import of the painting.

Another perspective on the Luna painting as national cultural heritage was articulated by two academics, one from the University of the Philippines and the other from the Ateneo de Manila University. The two professors looked at Garcia’s purchase from the point of view of the public whose contributions to GSIS represent the main bulk of the funds managed by the institution under Garcia. In so many words, the two professors were suggesting that the millions paid for the Luna painting were an extravagance that could have been put to better use as benefits for the contributors to the fund or expended on poverty alleviation. Alice Guillermo and Tito Genovea Valiente, by their articles in Today, articulated a political position often dismissed as “pedestrian” or “philistine” by elite art patrons. They have called up the awareness that the preservation of cultural heritage is a humanist project whose social impact ought to be computed vis-à-vis the people whose contributions constitute the fund from which Garcia lopped off the amount that went to the purchase of Parisian Life, and the people intended to be the beneficiaries of the art purchase. We are also reminded that in the valuation of a cultural heritage project, social impact demands to be factored in, as this is measurable in terms of the audience or public whose lives will be touched by the spiritual and/or material reward of the project.

The enormity of the cost of keeping a Luna painting in the Philippines has made the Garcia purchase a national event meriting a full editorial in the country’s most influential newspaper. The Philippine Daily Inquirer picked up Garcia’s own words in lending approbation to the expenditure: “We are not buying a masterpiece, we are buying a piece of history.”
A venerable art critic, Eric Torres, when asked if he thought the millions paid for the painting were well spent, exclaimed “Why not? It’s a masterpiece by one of the greatest painters of the 19th century. . .” The Daily Inquirer’s leading columnist, Amando Doronila, added his intellectual weight to the justification of the cost, in the process derogating voices in opposition whom he characterized as “populist but ignorant demagogues.” Torres and Doronila, by their words, would seem to have put the controversy to rest. And Thads Bentulan of Business World, giving a detailed computation of the actual amount paid, a blow-by-blow account of the bidding process, and other pertinent information in two installments of his column Street Strategist, seemed to have used up all words needing to be said about “the valuation of Juan Luna.” But Bentulan’s closing paragraphs touched upon a question the columnist himself had raised: “How can the perfect investment become the worst investment in the same breath?” Earlier in the column, Bentulan had pointed out that the money invested in Parisian Life will stay invested “forever.”

Then the “street strategist” imagines a teacher “from a far-flung village whose pupils are sweating under a mango tree because there is no classroom.” He places the said teacher in the Marriott Hotel ballroom where the bidding for the Luna painting was conducted by Christie’s. Bentulan continues, “If you tell her that with her salary it will take her more than 400 years to pay for one small Juan Luna, and that her government through its agencies has parked Php46 million forever, what do you think will happen to her in Hong Kong?” The columnist conjectures that the teacher “may suffer the same fate that Juan Luna suffered in 1899: dead of heart attack in Hong Kong.”

More than a light-hearted touch, Bentulan’s comic clincher returns us to the issue of computations. It is at this point that comparative valuations might be instructive for cultural heritage advocates.

The 2001 Annual Report of the NCCA provides us with sample projects that might be juxtaposed with the Luna purchase to drive home the necessity of factoring in the social impact of a project being proposed for funding. Four grants awarded in 2001 might be singled out and valuated vis-à-vis Parisian Life.

All together, the four projects compose a picture of the task of heritage conservation in our country. Paintings on the walls of an old convent house in Minalin, Pampanga, have begun to fade with age and need to be restored. Art students at the University of the Philippines need a sculpture foundry, and the university applied for help in building the necessary facility. The National Museum has asked for additional funds to keep its archaeological project in Palawan going. The site that yielded in 1962 evidence of human beings already making stone tools 40,000 years ago need further exploration and excavation in expectation of new findings that would give fuller knowledge of early human life in the Philippines. A National Art Gallery that would provide space for the art holdings of the National Museum is up for construction.

Funding for the aforementioned projects might be set beside the P45.4 million invested by the GSIS on Parisian Life. This ought to make cultural managers realize the compelling necessity of comparative valuations when evaluating heritage projects. The aesthetic merits and historical significance of Luna’s painting, for instance, might very well justify Garcia’s bid at the Christie’s auction. The point, however, is to consider as context the limited resources of the Philippine government and to exercise prudence in the disbursement of scant funds for heritage projects.

Consciousness of our identity as a people does not have to be purchased at a cost that would deprive the majority of Filipinos social services government is obligated to provide. Parisian Life, there is no doubt about it, is an affirmation from the past that the Filipino people once produced a great painter who made the Spanish colonial masters recognize genius in an indio artist in the late years of their rule. However, there are other forms of cultural heritage equally expressive of national identity and probably more rationally affordable. The NCCA grant of P50 million for the establishment of a National Gallery of Art invites comparison with the acquisition of Parisian Life for P45.4 million. Between a painting that will be available for viewing to a handful of museum-goers and an infrastructure that will serve generations of visitors to a gallery exhibiting the art heritage of the Filipino people, it ought to be clear which deserves to be prioritized. The task of saving cultural heritage is an expensive undertaking, and managing well the meager funds for the task requires that social impact be made a deciding criterion in expenditures intended to assert our dignity and worth as a people.