There was a time when art exhibits came and went, when openings were merely an excuse to socialize and be seen. Certain galleries and exhibits of course were far more important than others, with guests that cut across the elite who buy and collect art, to members of the art academe (teachers and scholars), to artists of all shapes and sizes, maybe a celebrity or two.
It can be painfully claustrophobic, and half the time the art becomes secondary really to the task of chika. The crowd also makes it impossible to look at the art, and that means having to go back for another look, if the task is to write about it.
But an exhibit’s opening night that has the combination of celebrity and the ka-ching! ka-ching! of the cash register, is not just a success for the gallery and the artist. It’s also the best press release ever. It has recently been trumped though.
Welcome, the artista.
The complexity of photos
It wasn’t surprising that John Lloyd Cruz was at last month’s art fair. In the past year or so, his face has been periodically plastered on the Facebook pages of galleries and artists, dropping in on artists during ingress.
The images are the same. There is a giddiness (the artist’s, or whoever else was at the ingress), and a nonchalance (Cruz’s, without the trappings of celebrity and fame). There is also the discomfiture of an artist standing beside a TV and movie star; there is uncertainty.
It’s difficult to take these images at face value: for who gains from these displays of sameness, which are also necessarily ones of difference? Actor and artist are the same because their context is art and creativity; but actor is art patron, is endorser, of artist and art. And the artist, well, can only place himself relative to that.
We might imagine that the documentation of Cruz’s interest in local art means a free advertisement for artists. But certainly he gains from this engagement, too, he who is from the business of show, the one that favors homogeneity and refuses uniqueness. He whose foray into the art world happened via the patronage of the cultural elite.
Of men and mascots
My interest in Cruz is premised on iconography, where his place in popular culture is intertwined with contemporary media empire ABS-CBN, which ascertains mileage for its actors given the pop culture industries it is part of: television, radio, film production, music recording, and magazines. The mileage also means forcing an artista like Cruz to share more of his private life, because his talent and fictional personas are not enough.
This is why we cannot take at face value this turn from artista to art in Cruz. His icon is one created from controlled images, one that has made him credible enough as endorser of shampoo and paracetamol on nationwide campaigns. Adding some Pinoy contemporary art to that list of endorsements can only be infinitely interesting, because it is far from the trajectory of the pop culture icon, high profile as this move is.
Because Cruz is not just being photographed with art and artists; he is also hanging out with a particularly elite cultural clique, sitting on some sidewalk, in a seemingly unplanned photo (that could’ve also been masterfully staged) by artist MM Yu. At last month’s art fair, Cruz was inside the play area with Louie Cordero’s ping-pong tables, standing beside the bright Esquire Magazine sign. I might not have been surprised by his presence, but it was startling to find him standing and socializing in that play area, his icon the only point, the art all but secondary.
At the art fair’s opening night, someone asked me if I had seen the mascots (I had yet to see the gallery filled with them). And I answered: Sino, si John Lloyd?
Doing it differently
The artista presence in the art fair is read as a way to popularize art, but that is not only superficial, it’s also absurd. Cruz’s presence will not translate to his mass following becoming more interested in art, or paying the P150 bucks to enter an art fair. The distance between art and his mass audience is a huge one, and it will take more than Cruz (and Anne Curtis, and Vice Ganda, who were also at the art fair opening) being present in art affairs to breach it.
Of course it’s possible that this turn in Cruz’s iconography, this one that has him gallivanting with the more famous elite cultural cliques, is borne of a sincere interest in local contemporary art. Maybe he’s buying the works of artists he likes? Maybe he is an honest collector and not just looking for a return on investment? One wonders when we will hear him speak about art. And why he had to do things this way when many have done it differently, without the trappings of celebrity, e.g., Julius Babao.
On the last day of the art fair, I found myself in the tiny backroom of Gallery Duemilla gawking at Roberto MA Robles’ smaller pieces. A girl was behind me, taking photos too, staring at the framed works. It was Bianca Gonzales, like she was out on a regular day to look at art, too.
There are many ways to support our local artists and to get a bigger audience for them. There are also many reasons for Cruz to take a step away from the limelight, from seeming like the fashionable mascot of contemporary art, to actually become the invisible force that will dare bridge that gap between art and his mass audience. But of course that has never been the goal for the cultural elite of this country; and with Cruz right smack in the middle of that, this is all just wishful thinking.