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April 12, 2004

REUBEN C. CAÑETE
JOSEPHINE M. ATIENZA

The Annual Art Competition (more famously known as the Annual) of the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) has often been a space/site of dispute, not only among competing artists, but also within the artworld intelligentsia. These questions are increasingly being asked: “What is the importance of the Annual? And why can’t the AAP think of another regular activity to benefit its members?” In light of the AAP’s current dependence on the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) for funding for the Annual, it behooves us to consider what are the stakes for continuing, or doing away, with it.

Primarily, it might be useful to tease out the signification of the Annual as a regulated institutional practice: what is the value of the Annual to the AAP that its organizers bear uncommon personal hardships? Why is the Annual considered by the agents manning the AAP, as well as the agents running against the AAP, as the organization’s most pointedly essential(ized) art practice? Moreover, what interests and strategies are compounded, articulated and structured in the process of naming the Annual as an inherent AAP function?

It cannot be denied that the Annual is a productive event, in the sense that it produces both practices and commodities, as well as discourses, that serve the broader interest of the AAP-as-institution within its delimited goal: to “advance, foster, and promote the interests of those who work in the visual arts.”(AAP Amended By-Laws, 1986) That this process necessitates a repetition of such practices that are elevated into ritual fetishization is a consequence of the materialization of the practice in lieu of the art market conditions of consumption, by which AAP stakes its own positionality as necessarily a circulator of artistic goods within a general system of production, circulation and consumption. Its relation is more complex than that, however, for the Annual is not only a circulator, but also a producer—of symbolic goods, through the process of canonization and consecration. Pierre Bourdieu, in this matter, makes it clear:

The relationship maintained by producers of symbolic goods with other producers, with the significations available within the cultural field at a given moment and, consequently, with their own work, depends very directly on the position they occupy within the field of production and circulation of symbolic goods. This, in turn, is related to the specifically cultural hierarchy of degrees of consecration. Such a position implies the objective definition of their practice and of the products resulting from it. Whether they like it or not, whether they know it or not, this definition imposes itself on them as a fact, determining their ideology and their practice, and its efficacy manifests itself never so clearly as in conduct aimed at transgressing it (1993, 131).

The Annual as a site for the continuous dispensation of artistic capital is thus seen as an essentialized ingredient in the continued articulation of an institution whose constitution is basically aimed at the interests of the producers themselves. Its historicity, grounded within the delimited practices of post-War economic exigencies, explains the Annual’s drawing power as a consecrated site of symbolic dispensation, uniquely privileged within its own genesis as conflationary (although many would find this highly coincidental—if highly opportunistic) to the discursive evolution of modernity in Philippine visual art. This much even Emmanuel Torres admits:
 

Wittingly or unwittingly the competitions set the stage for a higher agenda: discussion of progressive ideas that would determine the course of Philippine art in the immediate post-World War II years when the country was slowly clambering out of the rubble…

The AAP too became the means to propel the cause of modernism in the visual arts. From the moment it launched its first Annual in 1948, it provided a platform for a word war between the main camps – the traditional/conservative vs. the modern/progressive (1999, 18-19) (Emphasis supplied).
 

For Jose Tence Ruiz, the issue of the Annual is as a site of the AAP’s institutional practice akin to ritual, with a person-hood attached to it, at that, which articulates itself based on its positionality as a constituted art agency en masse, and as an inter-personal and processual activity which generates its own polyglottal utterances:

The Annual Competition, while not being the only activity of the AAP, remains its alter ego in the mind of the community. This is also its most consistent exercise, lagging only for a few years in the late 80s when the organization began to question its own relevance. Hence, the competition, and its basic judging structures would be worth a view vis-à-vis the fact that such structures had influence on the annual results, which in turn had attraction of he AAP as value creator for the new generation of Filipino artmakers. It must be stressed that some features of the AAP competition made it unattractive to its veterans: its volunteerist, non-profit nature, which could be related to lower prize money; its prestige value, which intimidated previous winners because they felt that joining at a late stage would deprive them of hard-earned seniority by pitting them against newcomers and its consistent search, albeit on an instinctive level for a newness that sometimes contravened a career aimed at reifying into a particular style (1999, 116, emphasis supplied).

 

Hence, a realization of the AAP as an integral link in the mechanism of artworld empowerment and imposition has to be postulated, for indeed, few institutions of the same nature as the AAP (destined, as it is, to the “servitude” of its voting public, the artist-member) are able to jointly articulate and engage more powerful institutions in the configuration of the Manila art market, such as corporations with art programs, art galleries, state art museums, the art academe, and the art publication field. Certainly, no other local artist union could deploy more symbolic power at a rate consistent to its practice the AAP had, considering its 50-year track record of “discovering new talent” and initiating meta-critical debates concerning the “directions of Philippine Art.” Hence, the Annual is seen as a truly overdetermined space for the co-production of an AAP public that provides its institutional force with feedback many times over through the process of spatial aesthetic consumption. Torres acknowledges the existence of this mechanism as an AAP-derived construct within the local art market:

Through its competitions the AAP prompted the general public to consider the art experience as more than passive or habitual response to familiar form, but as difference between “conservative” and “modern” that used to be such a hot issue with its members and the viewing public…
 

Not to be overlooked is that in its early years the Annual raised basic questions in the public mind on the rationale of artmaking itself. Call it the Either/Or factor: Art that satisfies the artist’s inner, or psychological, needs or one that is commercially viable or commodifiable? Art that opens new doors of perception, or one boxed in with orthodox ideas of the beautiful? (1999)

In fact, it is the contention of Torres that the Annual’s efficacy as institutional force-legitimation within a general system of inter-institutional competition encouraged private companies to sponsor their own competitions:

Another gauge of the Annual’s success is that since the 1950s it has inspired Big Business to sponsor each year similar competitions which are still going strong: Shell Philippines (since 1951), Metrobank (since 1984), Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company (since 1988), Dow Chemical Philippines (since 1989) and the Philip Morris Group of Companies (since 1994)… Most prestigious of all in terms of publicity and cash (my emphasis) is the Philip Morris Art Awards for those who have had some gallery exposure and mileage…
(1999-19-20)

As Torres equates the institutional delimitation of power with scales of consumption (publicity mileage and cash award), he sees the AAP as a comparatively depowered site for artistic heirarchization and fetishization, and cues us to those devices which he signifies ars essential to the success and legitimacy of art market players.

Whereas it is true that the AAP does not have the same volume of resources that these aforementioned corporations may dispense (incidentally, as tax-deductible expenses), it does contain one element that continues to signify its practice of the Annual as a qualitatively superior art competition. This concerns the composition and rigidity of the process of art adjudication. As the lead elements in the production of aesthetic canonization, it is the composition of the jury that is the most highly valued and contentious subject in the art competition field. In fact, comments on the appropriateness of certain members of the Manila artworld as jurors are constantly heard from participating artists—indicating the fluxual conditions and intensity upon which the battle for artistic supremacy rages off-stage. The combination of jurors, their backgrounds, their aesthetic preferences, and their tendency of choice is factored into the AAP Board’s decisions as to which members of the Manila art world are invited to compose the Annual jury. Ruiz gives an exhaustive account of this process:

The jury has by practice, and by conventional wisdom, often been composed primarily of respected practitioners (often AAP winners themselves) and active and credible theoreticians, with a leaning towards university critics, university-based art academicians and non-academic personnel with a reputation for quality and innovation in their respective fields. Often enough, though not always, this panel is supplemented by persons auxiliary to the practice such as reputed collectors, executive of corporations involved in the sponsorship of the current Annual and functionaries of government and non-government organizations involved in cultural development, again through programs or sponsorship. The structure is therefore built along a qualified cross-section reinforced or interpellated by peripheral but not disinterested individuals. Names are usually raised and discussed at board meetings with a credible quorum, although there is room for changes in this approach, depending on the situation. There is a deliberate but non-systematized attempt at balancing agendas perceived to be identified with the jurors, but as a matter of privilege for voluntarily serving in the board, these are relative to the perceptions of the board itself. In effect, the board alone deliberates on the formulation of the jurors. (No one) recalls a general election of jurors by the members.

The shortlist of jurors is then notified, given a formal written request of participation and allowed to confirm willingness and availability. Generally, each member of the panel is not informed of the panel’s make-up. Only the AAP Board is aware of this until the day of judging when all jurors meet face to face. There may be circumstances of discomfort at this meeting, but the deliberation process for the shortlist hopes to pre-empt this with inputs from the board. During the actual judging, the… board has seen fit to disallow any discussion among panelists to avoid possible lobbying or exchange of influence. A numerical method, or a quota method is assigned to each panelist for the initial round of screening. Further selections are narrowed down by individual voting, usually translated into a numerical equivalent. The composition of the winner’s circle is generally subject to a deliberation, the only one allowed by the Board during the process although, on occasion, the voting may indicate an undeniably common preference, in which case deliberation is seen to be redundant and it dispensed with. Results are re-checked and winners listed, pending notification. The composition of the Panel of jurors is intended to be confidential until the awarding ceremonies, or at least until the preparatory news releases come out. It has not been improper for a juror to be asked to stand in the next year’s competition although variation is attempted and desired. It must be understood that the volunteerism aspect of the organization makes for less control over ideal situations (1999, 116-117).

The mechanism for the selection of the Annual prize winners is, therefore, a highly complicated and uncertain process, yielding a potentially unpredictable result each time a jury is recomposed. This gains even more unpredictability because of the constant shift of categories. Among the other contentious issues fostered by the Annual is the inclusion of categories that are battled upon their epistemic vis-à-vis their market relevance, such as the Representational/Non-Representational separation in Painting. Alice Guillermo, notably, has critiqued this stance of the AAP, arguing that it is not only theoretically untenable, but also processually conservative, imitating the Conservative-Modern division of the 1950s.1 (1998, 12) While the critique may be valid on semantic grounds, what can be seen in the competition process is that the theoretical stance of its practitioners are not as significant as the production of sub-fields of difference between sectors in the Painting field: the Representational and Non-Representational categories are produced and imposed upon the body of Painting (in fact, only Painting)2 practitioners as a matter of choice (“Figurative or Abstract? Perhaps both?”). Therefore, the divergence can be explained not from the standpoint of critical thinking, but from that of the production and circulation processes as activated for the interests of the producers themselves, articulated within the immediate goals of artistic heirarchization that the Annual-as-symbolic dispenser reifies. Also, one would have to tie up the production of additional spaces of articulation within the Annual as a mutual strategy on the part of the AAP-and-members to continue broadcasting its essential(ized) role in the co-production of the high art market via the dispersal of both categories as homuncular devices of its own agentic person-hood: the AAP as encouragement of both traditional figurative and abstract genres in an attempt to expand the field of painterly practice; trapped in neither, but available in both (or, to its detractors, articulate in neither).3

The value of the Annual is therefore seen in relation not only to its structural support and agentic identification with the AAP’s institutional practice but also as a liberative field that allows the AAP’s constituents an additional playing ground/battlefield which will translate (for those who win, anyway) into substantial access into the aesthetic circulation and consumption fields which he/she may have had difficulty accessing to independently of the AAP. The Annual, crucially, is seen as a neutral space where independent producers and consumers can configure and deal with each other, neutral in the sense that its organizers profess goals of non-profit, art development, and artist-centered concerns, rather than the exploitative implications that artists characterize the “commercial” matrix of the gallery circuit, or the “elitist” (and non-selling) environment of the state art museum.

The production of symbolic, economic, political and historical value via the products of the awards system is the most crucial site of contention in the Annual-as-AAP. This signification is premised not only as foregrounded on the textuality of its aesthetic merits, but also as an added appendage, a tenuous continuation of an entire sacralized body of historicized art objects that have been elevated to the level of fetish by its constant reproduction of the discourse of masterly victories: the constant exhortation to the tradition of Botong Francisco, Vicente Manansala, Cesar Legaspi, Hernando R. Ocampo, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Arturo Luz, Ang Kiukok, Malang, Roberto Chabet, and others that reproduce not only a school of art historically essentialized texts, but also as entire bodies of aesthetic configuration reified into the common denominator: Philippine (Masters) Art. It is, in fact, in opposition to the perceived parameters of (mostly connoisseurly) justification of the Annual’s past (masterly) winners that the discourse of the unacceptably insubordinate “kitsch” of the present winners are made out, contrasted, and Othered. As we have also realized, such come at the expense of a suspension of paradigmatic forces, one that is untenable, if not impossible, to sustain at this time. One reason why such comparisons still occur may have to do with the shock of recent-ness. Another could be due to the oft-complained paucity of critical art evaluation in contemporary art. A third, signifyingly, also has to do with the relative boundaries of artworld (and agentic) articulations across generations of practitioners. As this writer, paraphrasing Bourdieu at length, had observed before:

…We must… realize that the assignment of…values by different entities in the artworld is as a result of the transference of symbolic capital from one category of goods to another…thereby realizing the historical possibility that an enormous… number of variety of goods can be produced, for as long as any currently limited number of varied goods are circulated in the conditions of its continued consumption according to the hierarchic and symbolic levels. One such hallmark in this scenario is the notion of opposition between any two contending markets of symbolic goods, that representing the dominant and marginal, in which the strategies of attaining power is through the subversion of the dominant mode through the aesthetization of the new or avant-garde, and the de-aesthetization and loss of symbolic capital of the old guard, through the propagation of ideological interests of consumptive heirarchization (1999).

The differing spaces of artistic distinction is therefore at the heart of the debates concerning the production of legitimation of art objects within the Annual mechanism, a strategy that is mediated primarily as a result of an art judiciary process, whose order of legitimation is animated by the agentic relations between artists, art jurors, and art critics. The spaces of competition, therefore, overlap and adjoin from the art objects, to that of the relations between artists and art jurors, art jurors and publics, and other activated power-agents in the field of the Manila artworld.

The contention of the relative merits (primarily “aesthetic”) of competing art objects must also be cleared, for the nature of the Annual as a productive mechanism not only unveils the strategies of empowering via the agentic relations between subaltern and superior, but also among subalterns themselves as a diffracted community. Its multi-valenced production of different types of products suited within a generally homologous module (“representational painting, sculpture, printmaking,” etc.) activates the agentic relations across each other within the delimited field of production, as they attempt to construct mechanisms and technologies of enchantment, calculated to subdue the opposition of the viewer/judge, and turn the art juridical tide in favor of the particular participant. The subsequent manifestations of forms of trans-canonical production, using as a basis the differentiated typologies that were canonized previously, is part and parcel of the Competition manifestation. Art works do not only attempt to signify their individual-ness via its (implied genius of) unique-ness; they also signify their intentions to compete within a field of parallel products, using as their basis of distinction the relative merits of formal and allegorical play—backstopped, as it were, by the exhortation of an essentialized person-hood manifest in the visual linguistics of the output product.

The Annual competition, therefore, activates for the AAP its own simulacral being: a virtual space of clashing agents, visions and concepts, all attempting to gain legitimacy and empowerment within a regulated system of juridical awards, in which the products attempt to bear no overt similarities of the previous system, but whose process of textual sacralization ultimately negates the process of differentiation. For the processes that animate the discourses of the art competition system rely as much on the means of achieving and legitimizing the positionality of power within the art market, as it does on the more rarified discourses of symbolism and iconology.

By what manner is this system legitimized and rarified into meta-discourses? Primarily, it is done through the process of pointing, choosing and uttering about the sacralized pieces. The production of fetishization is as much a result of the reader/viewer’s attraction to its merits, as much as it is an attempt to approximate the power of icons in the eyes of their producers. Simply speaking, without an audience to legitimate it, an artwork is only a collection, a manufacture, of materials gathering dust and termites. This is where the process of display and documentation enters the equation, and of its central role in the reproduction of the canon. Its unique manifestation in the form of the AAP Annual Competition Catalogue, with its all-encompassing breadth and scope of looking and pointing to (all competition entries are presumed to have been photographed and featured in the AAP Annual Catalogues since its inception under Ramon Orlina in 1992), denotes, for one, a multiplication—if not explosion—of the possibilities of canonization: with the super-disinterested body of texts floating around the system, each agent can manipulate his or her own positionality to the general art system by pointing to their entries at the Catalogue as reified forms of art production legitimacy. This gains even more credible pretense when the scale and lavish display of the presentation at the Catalogue highlights its added value as a newly empowered member of the art system, via its victory or placement within the winning circle of art pieces. The canon, after all, has its uses, not only to its reproducers (historians, academicians, publishers, etc.) but also to its accessioners, the “entry level” object-producers who, according to Ruiz, see the Annual as a “site of convention”—if not of artworld empowerment.

NOTES

1. This stance against the institutional practice of inter-stylistic distinction is one that Torres, ever the harpy, also goads AAP on several occasions, most notably in the 1997 Annual (see Emmanuel Torres, “What Ails the Art Association of the Philippines?,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, August 17,1997, Lifestyle Section).

2. This can be explained by the numbers of contestants that flock to this category, its oldest and most prestigious (the first ever-top prizewinner of the Annual’s Painting Category was National Artist Carlos V. Francisco in 1948). Between 1993 and 2001, an average of 100 Painting entries were submitted per Annual, two-thirds the volume of the entire competition. This is due to the population size of painting practitioners within the AAP membership, as well as its implied cultural capital in participating and winning an award with antecedents like Francisco, National Artist Vicente Manansala, National Artist Cesar Legaspi, and so on. We can, of course, already deconstruct the premise of its schizoid personality (Conservative/Modern/Representational/Non-Representational) based on the necessity of including this practisanal majority within the AAP’s membership ranks, boosting its own institutional power base, and acting as enfleshed macro-agent for the purposes of artworld legitimation of its mostly amateur-defined contestant-members. One can see the logic especially if we transpose the issue to another category: how ludicrous would Conservative/Modern Printmaking sound by comparison, for example.

3. It also assumes its institutional empowerment through a more directly material manner: the addition of a category would not only add the number of entries to the Annual, but, through the imposition of entry fees per category (a member can enter all categories of the Annual, the only restriction given is that the member can only submit one piece per category) starting in 1993, actually allows the AAP more funding for its own purposes.