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July 29, 2011


A social view of the world makes people sociable, harmony-seeking and unitive. It encourages a devotional attitude towards the highest ranking being in the cosmic social order for the reason that becoming one with this figure unites one with the whole world. Filipino traditional culture, which is essentially Southeast Asian, views the universe as the infinite manifestations of a dynamic, creative living spirit, whose sacred essence is often symbolized as a mythical hero or divine being and whose concrete representations are believed to be permeated by this being’s spiritual energy.

Hence, images of these divine beings attract so much devotional fervor in all traditional Filipino life, especially in the villages. A strongly shared devotion develops an expanded sense of self, an orientation that is communal rather than individualistic, intuitive and holistic rather than logical and analytic, and preferring interdependence and relationships over self-assertion and privacy.

Filipinos are highly relational people. They are hardly alone, quite happy being together – when they eat, sleep, work, travel, pray, create or celebrate. Having a minimal sense of privacy, they are open, trusting and easily accessible socially. Instead of a meticulous concern for safeguarding their private sphere, as in the case of Western peoples, many Filipinos actively seek a convergence of their lives with the lives of others. For example, a sharing of concern is seen in a common form of greeting in the region such as, “Where are you going?” or “Where have you been?” Sharing of tasks and responsibilities within the family and the community is a way of life. Thus, they become highly skilled and creative in interpersonal relations and social interaction. The capacity to integrate socially becomes one of the hallmarks of maturity.

The communal orientation is manifested in all aspects of traditional Filipino village life and, to a great extent, even in urban settings.

Attributes Attributes of Integral Art

The traditional arts most sensitively reflect this communal orientation. Being the most lucid and expressive symbols of a culture’s values, the arts are the most powerful instruments of inquiry into the essential character of a culture. It is undeniable that the following basic concepts and attributes of art and the contexts of artistic creation, expression and experience could only have arisen in communal or integral Filipino cultural settings:

Integration of the arts with other values and functions; they are not
valued for their own sakes. The aesthetic is not divorced from
utilitarian, religious, moral, spiritual, social, and ecological concerns.
This ensures a balanced cultivation and development of human
faculties – physical skills as well as inner potentials.

Unity of the arts. Consistent with the integration of faculties is the
integration of artistic sensibilities. No one sensory mode and
aesthetic intelligence is to be cultivated at the expense of the others.
Although one may be given emphasis – literary, visual, spatial,
musical, kineaesthetic, gustatory and olfactory senses have to be
harnessed and promoted together for maximum aesthetic well-being.

Art is integrated with everyday life and not regarded as a separate
activity; it does not become a specialism (specialization that is narrow
or at the expense of everything else, according to Jacques Barzun). It is not
for the specialist alone but for everyone. This implies that there will be no
special venues or spaces for art because it virtually exists wherever
and whenever there is human activity.

Equality of opportunity for participation in the artistic, creative process;
there are relatively no superstars, for the source of power is not the
individual, who is only a channel of divine inspiration or creativity.
Thus, the author or creator is often anonymous.

The artist is not separate from his audience or society, comunal
participation is the norm. Unlike in the West, there is no dichotomy
of artist and society because art is not the specialists’s concern alone.
Everybody is expected to be an artist and participate in creative,
expressive activities.

Flexibility of material, technical, and formal requirements. No rigid or
fixed standards dictate the choice of materials, techniques, and forms
for artistic creation and expression, e.g. there is nothing like an
arbitrary, fixed system of tuning as in the European equal-tempered
system though definite principles underlie the tuning of musical
instruments such as lutes, flutes and gongs. Such flexibility ensures a
wider participation of people in artistic activity.

Use of available resources for artistic creation. Art is not synonymous
with big production costs because what matters is artistic excellence
or the creative idea as well as making art part of everyday life. Thus,
the least expensive mediums, e.g. paper for kites is regarded highly
and not considered inferior to the costlier ones. And even the most
practical objects like a coconut grater, container, knife handle, tree
stump, mat, or hat can become a medium for the finest art.

Emphasis on the creative process rather than the finished product,
endowing extemporaneous, improvisatory or spontaneous
expressions of creativity a higher value than deliberate, often
solitary, conceptualization and composition of forms. This valuing of
process rather than product nurtures creative health and can inhibit
mere idolizing of masterpieces and obsession with permanence

Simultaneity of conception and realization. Affirmation of the creative
imagination through the tradition of instant mirroring or biofeedback,
which, together with emphasis on the creative process, provides an
excellent condition for communal participation.

As the Philippines became more Westernized towards the latter part of the 19th century because of exposure to European liberal and secular ideas, particularly in the urban centers, these contexts were replaced by their exact opposite. Artistic creation becomes highly specialistic, separate from everyday life, an assertion of the individual ego, and driven by commercial success. It becomes a medium for technical virtuosity, sensory impacts, entertainment, and highly materialistic values. Art loses its magical, mythical and spiritual qualities.

The Filipino cultural substratum, however, does not succumb that easily to foreign influences no matter how dominant. The cultural matrix of Philippine art remains communal except among Filipino artists thoroughly educated in the West. Hence, contemporary artists in the Philippines – even those schooled in Western classical-romantic, realist, impressionist, post-impressionist, cubistic, surrealist, expressionistic, abstractionist, constructivist, photorealist, pop-op, avant-garde or post-modern thought – will exhibit formal tendencies clearly rooted in traditional art. Western influences on Philippine art constitute some kind of a thin veneer or mask that disguises indigenous qualities rooted in the communal tradition.

Unlike twentieth century cubism which fragments and dissects objects, Filipino art turns to various techniques for presenting many sides or views of the object precisely for the purpose of preserving its wholeness and articulating its nature. The omniscient perspective of communal art reveals a keen interest in depicting the object as we know it rather than as we see it. As a rule, the broadest sides are tilted towards us for greatest recognizability of the object.
We see this approach in contemporary painter Norma Belleza’s works, where it is extensively used, as in her “Hapunan”(Supper). Objects most easily identifiable from the top view are portrayed from this vantage point, such as the table, plates, stove and slippers. Those that are more intelligible from a frontal or lateral orientation are depicted accordingly, such as the bottle, human figures and the cat. Other contemporary artists notable for relying on the broadest aspect technique are Antonio Austria and Manuel Baldemor.

An intimate knowledge of reality, such as may be obtained from a multi-view approach is impossible to achieve with the camera. This machine can only depict one view at a time, and hence can only present to us the surface, never the essence of reality. Honore Daumier, French painter and caricaturist, just right after the use of the camera became popular in the 1840s, declared that “the camera sees everything but understands nothing.”

Inspite of this declaration, however, Western art has become so imbued with the mechanistic world view that conventional or academic Western realism has become synonymous with this view, in varying degrees. The reason for this, perhaps, is that single or one-view perspective is a fitting metaphor for the highly individualistic philosophy that pervades Western, especially American, culture up to the present time. This is not to gainsay, however, the great strides in the West towards a non-mechanistic world view since the advent of Cezanne and the post-impressionists. In fact, the major movements of twentieth century art in Europe implicitly question the philosophy of mechanistic materialsm.

The communal perspective attempts to represent the views of all the members of a community. Hence, we do not find a single focal center in its artistic expressions. In the works of Larry Alcala, the most popular Philippine cartoonist who recently passed away, there is no interest in a single individual’s view of things. Instead, we get a wide panorama of social life and activities, the way things would be experienced by different people at any one time or by one person at different points in time. It could also be the experience of a community at various points in time. Among the highly popular artists strongly manifesting this multi-focal, omniscient view are Carlos Francisco, Jose Blanco, Tam Austria, Angelito Antonio, Mauro Malang Santos and Anita Magsaysay Ho.

Related to this multi-focal tendency is the absence of emphasis on any one individual person. There are no superstars. Most often it is not a single person but a group or community that is portrayed.

The Filipino popular psyche is exceptionally transparent in its openness, spontaneity, and capacity for empathy. This is most likely why many Filipinos are excellent communicators, highly expressive, superior performers, extremely sensitive, warm and emotional. It is probably for the same reason that they are good inpakikiramdam (participatory sensitivity) and lambing (tender, loving care). Some of the correlates of these inner qualities are the preference for richly tasting food (particularly flavors derived from garlic, sour fruits, shrimp paste, fish sauces, ginger, turmeric, laurel, oregano and other spices); highly inflected speech; markedly tactile and biomorphic forms, delight in rainbow hues and the polychromatic, and strong curvilinear tendencies in the visual arts.

In contrast, Western, particularly British and American food, is relatively bland, their speech monotonal, their art more visual than tactile, their colors monochromatic and their forms rectilinear-geometric.

Certainly the works of many contemporary Filipino artists are supreme examples of polychromaticism (use of rich, intense myriad hues) and immediately establish their relation to multi-colored traditional creations such as fans, mats, Christmas star lanterns; and festivals like the Pahiyas of Lucban, Moriones of Marinduque and Ati-Atihan of Kalibo.

A marked tendency of Philippine art, whether traditional, modern or contemporary, is the penchant for filling up every empty space with form and detail. We call this maximalism. More than anything else, this tendency seems to be a manifestation of the Filipinos’ highly sensitive and expressive nature that is rooted in communal existence. One who connects to others so fully, sensitively and intimately will have so much to be expressive about. Filipino spontaneity and exuberance, it seems, knows no bounds. A well-known example of this in popular art is the Filipino jeepney, whose profuseness of detail for a public utility vehicle – normally drab and uniform in other countries – exists nowhere else in the world. In the more academic and serious genres, there is a long thread of maximalism from Fernando Amorsolo in the early twentieth century to Vicente Manansala in the 50s and Angelo Baldemor of today.

The Filipinos’ intuitive, holistic and multisensory approach to life militates against fragmenting experience into separate levels or compartments. Indeed activities, objects, and the arts tend to be multifunctional. Producing something that has many different uses creates a sense of community for they bring people of different interests and needs together. A typical Filipino food called sinigang combines soup, meat and vegetables in one bowl whereas they would constitute separate dishes in another culture. Typically, Philippine stores and markets, even bookstores and drugstores, but especially department stores and malls will contain all kinds of things because they typically cater to Filipinos who come in groups.

Traditional Filipino culture does not divide the arts into seven different sensory–behavioral categories. This insight at once provides us with a directional force in Philippine contemporary art: a movement towards integration.

The arts brought to the Philippines from Europe in the 19th century came in separate specializations: graphic, plastic, performing, literary and so forth. But Filipinos inevitably moved towards their integration, as they have always done in the past. Again, the strong influence of modernism in Philippine art during the thirty-year span from the 50s to the 70s demanded the purity of painting as painting and sculpture as sculpture. But this began to change in the 80s with the new and younger artists’ explorations into multi-media and installation art. An outstanding example of this is Aro Soriano, who, for a long time enduring a Bohemian existence as an exile in Paris, re-established himself in the Philippines in the 80s to rediscover his roots. His works, though very contemporary in sensibility, characteristically display great skill in integrating visual elements, folklore, song texts, ritual and performance.

Having a traditional base, the popularity of mixed media and installations in Philippine art now eclipses all the others. These could either be an assemblage of three-dimensional forms within a two-dimensional format, playfully interactive works which could be touched and manipulated such as those of Noel Cuizon and Dennis Ascalon, or a combination of indigenous materials and found objects, as in the installation and environmental art which gained prominence through the pioneering efforts of Junyee, Santiago Bose and Roberto Villanueva and later Imelda Cajipe-Endaya , Alwin Reamillo, and, in a class by himself because of his fusion of found objects to create highly imaginative but functional sculptures, Gabby Barredo. A heightened concern for the environment and assertion of indigenous identity are among the significant contributions of this younger group of artists.

Though unrecognized by many art critics, it appears that the most salient feature of Philippine arts is a rather stylized, rhythmic and patterned design or organization of forms. This is especially evident in folk and popular art but manifest in almost the same degree in serious art and other genres, except perhaps in social realist art and works of artists like Jaime de Guzman and Onib Olmedo, whose genuine expressions of angst are typically non-existent in Philippine art. Even the most impressionistic variety of Philippine art will not succumb to the lure of formlessness and the shifting, shimmering textures of European impressionism. The use of thick, raw, frenetically driven and agitated impastos in Western abstract expressionism is alien to the Filipino temperament. Instead we find the so-called “abstract expressionist” textures and compositions of Jose Joya and Raul Isidro to be highly lyrical, musical and rhythmically-patterned in a way akin to that of traditional weaving. Even works superficially labeled surrealistic in Philippine art are in reality playful fantasies, with none of the nihilism, sense of ambiguity and absurdity of life associated with it in the West.

The rhythmic patterning in Philippine arts seems to stem from the Filipinos’ highly devotional attitude towards the divine and the predisposition towards experiencing life as an integrated whole, inspiring in them a deep sense of community and feeling of harmony with the vital rhythms of existence. The joy and feeling of well-being that springs from this harmony engenders in the Filipino soul an inherent musicality that provides the rhythmic matrix for everything the Filipino artist touches. The quintessential expression of this gift is the abstract art of Hernando Ocampo. The sinuous, cell-like, biomorphic forms of his paintings are individually alive and distinct yet sensitive to one another and seemingly engaged in a collective dance of joy. Some critics have suggested that Ocampo’s art could be the most faithful expression of Filipino identity.

It is heartening to realize that no matter how extensive Western influence is on Philippine culture, the Filipinos’ traditional sensibility, world view, values and attitudes remain essentially intact, as can be gleaned from their contemporary visual arts.