How long before what we value as worthy, exciting, “young” art becomes nothing but a display of the aesthetics— now fixed and expected—of the powers-that-be of the art world, i.e., the collectors and the elite, the commercial art galleries and auction houses?
The last time I was interested in the Ateneo Art Awards, it was when Buen Calubayan’s “Fressie Capulong” got into the top ten. I make no secret of my membership in the pseudo-fictional #CalubayanFansClub, and that is why I stopped reviewing his exhibits but go to all of them anyway.
That was 2013. Calubayan appeared in the hoity-toity, dress-up, sushalan event in his National Museum uniform – where he had been working for a year or so as a cultural worker. As I heard many ask that night: why is he wearing that? I was applauding him for refusing to engage in the expectations of this crowd.
To me— and I would be overreading Calubayan here—it made sense for him to appear in his NM uniform, a testament in itself about the sh*t artists need to put up with in this country in order to actually do the art that they want, given the institutions we live with—NM and art awards included.
It was the best—and last—AAA I would go to. And it had little to do with the AAA.
Focusing on the good
When I was a bright-eyed bushy-tailed art reviewer, these things would excite me, removed as the enterprise would be – at least in my eyes – from the ideological underpinnings of the whole exercise. No, this was not blindness or stupidity, as it was a deliberate insistence on focusing solely on what awards like this one gave artists like Calubayan, or Salvatus, or De Chavez at certain points in their careers.
That is, a grant or two that would send them abroad, an opportunity to do the work that they want, and the chance to exhibit this regardless of whether it would “sell” or not. For many artists this is an exciting prospect, if not a much-needed break, and one tends to be kind(er) to institutions that allow this kind of “freedom.”
Even then though it was clear to me that this was really only “exciting” art according to a very specific set of people—mostly from the elite, with a token academic or two, an established respectable artist sometimes—who were not only picking “the best” among the totally of any given year’s exhibits, but also always working with notions of how these choices bode well for the future of Philippine art.
At least until the following year’s awards, when the names change, and the aesthetic is surprisingly differently, and the works are ideologically diverse.
But what if this does not happen?
Redundancy and repetition
Unsurprisingly, I walked into the exhibit of this year’s AAA and was neither surprised nor excited by anything that I saw—probably jadedness, maybe just a sense of how much larger the art world is relative to these representative works from 10 representative exhibits, by 10 artists, mostly still coming from the same galleries, with a museum exhibit or two thrown in.
In the past years there would be instances where the chosen exhibits would be those done elsewhere in the world, a measure in itself of the disengagement of the public from the process—you need not have seen these exhibits yourself, you just need to trust in the institutions (people and gallery, both) that judge these to be the best of the lot.
The erasure of the dominant aesthetic and ideological underpinnings is of course part of the process, yet conservatism and tokenism, appealing to the popular and the hip, might as well define what AAA has become in recent years.
There are the works that retell our hard fought and won historical battles. There are the expected tributes to the city, the kind that happen in the form of nostalgia, as premised on an arrogance of ownership of these public spaces. There’s the preoccupation with silence and absence, which are necessarily about noise and presence (one of these via photographs in Italy—how cosmopolitan of our art!). There’s the obsession over the ironic connection between art and science, and then there’s the cause of saving the environment. There is that requisite discussion about poverty and need, the kind deemed acceptable.
There’s Leeroy New doing something old.
Beyond superlatives, criticism
It is also ironic that as the AAA has evolved to include the Purita Kalaw Ledesma Award for Art Criticism, that its exhibits leave little to be critiqued. Other than the explanatory framing of the works included, there were also videos of the artists speaking about their works – to me, a sure-fire way of discouraging critical writing (and thinking!) because what is there to think about when the artists themselves are speaking?
And of course these artists’ voices had to be playing on loop, like piped-in music to the task of art spectatorship.
An aside: why aren’t the essays for the art criticism award made available to the public before the awarding itself? Wouldn’t that make for better engagement? Unless of course the disengagement is the point. End of aside.
In this sense, what the AAA has come to ensure is really its survival, year-in, year-out, awarding the same kinds of art and creativity, the same concerns, the same forms and aesthetics, the same superlatives thrown around about young artists and exciting times, all with little concern for levelling-up public engagement in local artmaking, and even less about becoming a platform for more critical discourse.
This is neither good nor bad of course, as it is disappointing.
Sometimes one misses the bright eyed reviewer who could still get excited over so little.