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July 07, 2009

REINERIO A. ALBA

Admittedly, I came late into aesthetics appreciation. For one, I grew up surrounded by the almost standard reproduced paintings of the Sacred Heart image, showing the Catholics’ Jesus Christ holding in front of him a heart aflame and encircled with thorns, with a cross on top of it. There was also the equally ubiquitous Heilige Schutzengel image that hard-wired into my imagination what guardian angels ought to look like. The only other competing mainstay iconic image found in majority of middle class Filipino homes would most probably be the various local reincarnations of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper This should not come as a surprise, specially with the Philippines being a country whose population is at least 80% Catholic, my own family belonging to such a percentage.

Such reproduced and mass-produced images are my initial exposures to what would qualify for me then as visual arts. I accepted these images as standard features in the altar of our home or as part of normal household acquisitions such as the plants in our gardens. For one, the visual material I had growing up was also then limited to the local comics with its fascinatingly colorful drawings of the popular local iconic mermaid “Dyesebel,” alongside the heroine “Darna,” both of which are characters of Filipino graphic novelist Mars Ravelo. This was only supplemented later on by the colored illustrated books I came across within the library of my elementary school, namely, Cinderella, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, among other fairytale classics never before known to me. Still, it would be not until my tertiary schooling that I would be introduced to such a concept as “artist” and what it actually meant. Not until I had a subject called Humanities in my college years did I formally encounter such names as Rembrandt, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, Dali, along with the very pride of my country: Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo. As for the rest of my “discovery” of other visual artists abroad, and the eventual opening up of my visual palette, I had but the American movies to thank. Imagine my delight in seeing Georges de La Tour’s Magdalene With the Smoking Flame in Disney’s 1989 animated film The Little Mermaid, or learning about Monet’s San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk in the 1999 film The Thomas Crown Affair, among others! Then through books, I came to discover portraitist John Singleton Copley, Thomas Eakins, then Norman Rockwell, then Jackson Pollock, whose work was itself the subject of Rockwell’s The Connoisseur in the 1962 Saturday Evening Post cover. Wonderfully, these years were also the years that I discovered my gifts as a writer. In college, I wrote about my experiences in the arts, though not limited to visual ones.

It brings me to this point in my writing career. My job as a Web Content Editor/Writer for the official web site of The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (www.ncca.gov.ph). My job has not only enabled me to help in the communications area where information sharing online is crucial, but more importantly my job enabled me to meet artists from various disciplines, including cultural workers who avail of the NCCA Grants Program. I have likewise been privileged to attend arts lectures because of my work. I have been able to broach and implement the Artist Registry project of the web site, which aims to gather into one database all the Filipino artists, to help NCCA map them out and bridge them to their audiences, and more importantly for NCCA to synergize these artists in creating a better country through workshops and outreach programs. And, lately, on a personal capacity, I have been able to attend the openings of a number of exhibits in Metro Manila, where I am able to meet personally the artists behind such exhibits. Yes, I am able to understand the works better by attending such events though the works can stand by themselves, but being in such gatherings alone, I am able to feel that communal spirit among artists when they are together. As a creative writer, too, I am able to feel as well the need to put into words my reactions to these works of art. As Arthur C. Danto aptly put it in his introduction to Embodied Meanings: “until one tries to write about it, the work of art remains a sort of aesthetic blur.”

Admittedly, the resurging of my interest in the criticisms of visual art works was further piqued by my reading of the posthumous collection of critiques by Filipino writer and critic Leo Benesa “What is Philippine About Philippine Art? And Other Essays.” This book, fortunately, was published, through a grant by the NCCA.

And how I admired Mr. Benesa’s critiquing of the works of Filipino artists, of his references to the Mandarin sensibility of Arturo Luz, or of the Filipino leitmotif in Tabuena and Baldemor, or Saguil’s “aesthete of solitude,” going into the subject’s artistry while solidly anchoring his views of the artist’s works into the various phases of the artist’s life–all these, without losing or alienating his readers in the process. But it makes me sad that these art reviews were all written in the 70s and 80s. Except for the few who have kept visual arts criticism aflame such as Alice Guillermo and Cid Reyes, what readers nowadays could read from the various dailies and even blogs are but little descriptions and profiles of the exhibit and the artist being featured. I know that this is saddening because none of it is helping the Filipinos understand the artists in their midst and the progresses that they are able to make, or even the messages they are able to magnify through their works. 

Since then, each time I come across a painting, I would take the time to really look, and then in a small notebook, jot down notes, to help me reconstitute into an essay the work’s beauty and merits, and why it is so. The more wonderful thing that could happen is for my readers to be able to see what I have seen, opening their eyes, so to speak, and widening their understanding of the medium of visual arts. I am not saying that I have been making huge advances in this area, but slowly, I am going into this direction. And I am hoping that I am never too late nor too timid to try writing out this “aesthetic blur.”