Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The passing scene

Today, October 1, I ran out of ideas to write.

Not that there is nothing interesting happening around town worth commenting about. News of the U.S. financial crisis and the rejection by Congress of the $700 billion bailout by the Bush government has been on television and radio since Monday at about 2:00 p.m., and CNN continues to air opinions from economists, politicians and the spin-makers from both major American political parties nonstop, explaining to the public who’s to blame for the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass the rescue package that aims to stop the bleeding in the stock market.

There are more well-informed blogs on this subject, and I would encourage my readers to go to these blogs instead, but if they are still interested in what I usually spew out on this site, then bear and stick with me as I comb through some not-so-important matters in the life of my own community in Toronto.

Someone from my alumni chat group recently raised his concern about a proposed bill in Philippine Congress that seeks to tighten the existing law on obscenity and pornography in the Philippines. He was particularly worried that the proposed law might lead to possible censorship of art that explores nudity. He thought of the Oblation, a statue of an almost completely naked man with arms stretched to the skies in front of the administration building of the University of the Philippines, a figure which becomes visible as one enters the university grounds.

As a young freshman, I thought the statue was just a welcome sign but it really meant more than that. This fellow alumnus fears that an art book of nude studies by well-known artists, a book launched during the school’s centennial celebration, would be censored under this law. How horrible it would be if the proposed law would declare the Oblation and the art book obscene, and therefore banned, he mused.

If he were a lawyer, he would have understood that the proposed law was not meant for censorship. But he is an artist, therefore his concern is valid because censorship has a genuine chilling effect on any artist.

Before sharing his indignation, he and his group of Filipino artists had a sketching session during our alumni association's monthly breakfast social gathering. A model was invited, perhaps hired is the better term, to pose while interested onlookers watched the artists sketch. It was set up like a performance art show similar to a spoken word artist or poet reading before an audience. After they finished sketching, the artists displayed their works and some of the sketches were either sold or bought.

This sudden interest in nudity as an art form from a group of people, with the exception of a few, who have not shown any proclivity towards the arts in the past is somewhat very disturbing, if a bit unsettling. If the organizers of the breakfast meeting were simply motivated in raising attendance or perking the enthusiasm of those who regularly attend, then that is fine and well-intentioned, even if a nude sketching session might have turned some people into accidental voyeurs. And if this interest in nudity is reinforced by making it a regular feature of future breakfast meetings, then voyeurism masquerading as art appreciation has indeed been aroused to a greater extent particularly among the older men.

Nude sketching is common to artists, particularly those who are just starting or are novice artists. But art appreciation is something else, and one does not need to be exposed to nudes or to watch artists draw nude models to really value or understand what good art is.

The most practical way is to see the works of the masters through books or the Internet or by visiting museums. I have visited many art museums, among them the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, the art museums in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Philadelphia and San Francisco, as well as our art museums in Toronto, but I have yet to see a significant number of nude paintings on display. Because artists, when they become really good in their art, would usually set aside their nude studies and sketches (part of their preparation as artists is to study the forms and shapes of the human body) to tackle the real world: draw from their life experiences, or their impressions about landscapes, or inanimate or still life objects, or social issues.

Picasso’s nudes were mostly sketched during his Blue Period, in the early part of his career as a painter.

The Coit Tower in San Francisco, for instance, is a virtual art display of the Depression Years in the United States, featuring in detail of how life during those years had been difficult for everyone. (Mural at Coit Tower, San Francisco. Photo by Alitaptap.)

The same could be said of the San Francisco Institute of Art: no nude paintings or photographs, but works interpreting man’s struggle to live (as in Diego Rivera’s mural of industrial workers) or of the joy and beauty of life.

Nudity in art is well and good, but there are other more serious and socially relevant subjects in the works of artists that can pique our interest. If our aim is more than mere appreciation, but to promote the work of our own artists, then let us do so.

We can start with our young Filipino artists, who at this time in their lives, are struggling to establish their identity in an adopted and foreign society like Toronto, and at the same time searching for their heritage, of who their ancestors are and what it is like to be a Filipino. These are the artists we must encourage and invest on for they are the ones who have the potential to leave a lasting legacy in the art world, not only in our own community, but beyond our national group.

If you don’t have the time to visit the yearly art exhibitions in Nathan Phillips Square, the Riverdale Farm in Cabbagetown or other public art displays and scour the various paintings, sculptures and photographs to find one or two Filipino artists represented, you may visit Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts and Culture, 167 Augusta Avenue, home of young Filipino artists in Kensington market downtown Toronto. Or you may simply check their website at

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