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July 29, 2011


In Philippine culture, there is an underlying belief in the psychic unity of humanity. Individual existence is only apparent and relative. For we all exist within a cosmic matrix of being at the deepest center of which is a creative living principle or energic process. All human beings – and to a lesser degree even animals, plants and minerals — share this innermost sacred core: ubod ng kalooban. A paradox arises. In every person is a divine essence that seeks fulfillment in imaginative, creative endeavors. At the same time, the interdependence implied by a shared matrix of being seeks affirmation in a celebration of togetherness: pakikipagkapwa.

This social view of the world makes Filipinos 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.

Hence, images of divine beings attract so much devotional fervor in all traditional Filipino towns and 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 conditions 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. The arts 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 aspecialism (specialization that is narrow or at the expense of everything else, as defined by cultural critic 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; communal participation is the norm. Unlike in the West, there is no dichotomy of artist and society because art is not the specialist’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, more democratic 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.

The decline of integral art in urban settings

As Philippine society becomes more Westernized, particularly in the more urbanized and industrialized areas, these contexts are replaced by their exact opposite. Artistic creation becomes narrowly specialized, separate from everyday life, a glorification of the individual ego, and obsessed with commercial success. It becomes primarily a medium for technical virtuosity, sensory impacts, entertainment, and highly secular values. Art loses its magical, mythical and mystical qualities.

Many Filipinos who have been educated in the Western way or conditioned by the massive propaganda for Western elite and mass cultures in our midst have distanced themselves from Filipino integral or communal art to the extent of denigrating it as inferior and primitive, if not ignoring it altogether as art. Such thinking has no basis in fact and is mainly the result of ignorance and lack of exposure to the excellence of our traditional arts.

The best representatives of our communal cultures—the so-called “ethnic” Filipinos in northern Luzon, Mindoro, Mindanao and Sulu, Palawan, lowland folk in Luzon and the Visayas, and traditional communities even in urban places like Manila and Cebu—have never succumbed to the error of dichotomizing art and life or serving art at the expense of the integrity of the community or the individual. Unlike in the West, our integral art has always been a way of making oneself whole and of harmonizing oneself with others, with nature and with life. The wholeness of this way speaks with a clear and unmistakable voice.

The cardinal “error” of the folk or traditional artist, from a Western perspective, is to invest his work not only with the aesthetic but with other values as well. He endows his art with as many uses and functions to ensure that it will benefit a wide community of men, women and children and promote communal identity, well-being and harmony.

The traditional artist himself is not a narrow specialist. His purpose is to maintain, within his person, the broadest basis for interacting and communicating with others in everyday life. This is why, for example, an expert gong player for rituals may be a professional dentist the rest of the time. A National Living Treasure of the Philippines, Samaon Sulayman, who is a specialist and master of the kutyapi or two-stringed lute is also the favorite barber in his home town and a Muslim imam on particular occasions. To the integral traditional mind, pitting individual against society to raise the individual’s worth simply does not make sense.

The technical and economic power of Western art for art’s sake has awed many Filipino artists and led them to embrace its individualist aesthetics. Creative cooperation and harmony in traditional communities have been replaced by the wasteful competition and anxiety-driven ways of modern living. To revitalize the cultural contexts of the traditional arts in contemporary life is to return to the path of wholeness and wisdom.