TEACHING/LEARNING THE HUMANITIES IN OTHER WORDS/WORLDS
Patrick D. Flores


"(T)hese objects, forcibly uprooted from their historical context, their specific function, and their original meaning, standing before us in their glass display cases, strike our eye as enigmatic divinities and command our adoration. Their transfer from the cathedral, the palace, the nomad's tent, the courtesan's boudoir, and the witch's cavern to the museum was a magico-religious transmutation. Objects became icons."

- Octavio Paz
"Use and Contemplation"

"My exhibition at the Art and Project Gallery in Amsterdam in December '69 will last two weeks. I asked them to lock the door and nail my announcement to it reading: 'For the exhibition the gallery will be closed.'"

- Robert Barry

Why is it when some people talk about "culture" they talk about forms and practices that are far removed from what they actually come in contact with, perform, and go through everyday? Culture means going to the museum and admiring the beauty of an expensive masterpiece. Culture means listening to a piano recital amid the inviolable silence of a concert hall, watching a ballet performance seated and mute, or reading a book in solitude. To be "cultured" means to be civilized and literate, to possess a refined sensibility attuned to the "superior" values of the "good life" and to the "best" that has been thought and said and rendered in "artistic" form.

But how come it is not the way of the cultured to find "beauty" in the mat or in the weave or in the kitchen utensil many people use, because necessary and functional, in everyday life? How come the reality of culture cannot be discerned in and, consequently, "aesthetic pleasure" be derived from ritual, from a radio serial, or from the act of reading komiks as one hums a folk lullaby or the refrain of the latest jukebox hit?

The answers to these questions must lead us to interrogate prevailing assumptions about culture. It seems culture in conventional sense and usage refers to a specialized sphere of activity that is traditionally known and recognized as artistic.

But what, in the first place, is art? Or, better still, what constitutes the artistic? Isn't it that when we bring art to notice, recognize, identify, and specify it, we already involve society in the very mode of expressing the concept and the power to express it?

When we speak of art, we must not delude ourselves into believing that the term corresponds to some natural, objective, and fixed body of works "out there" to which the category of art is made to operate merely as a descriptive rubric. Rather, we must understand it as a concept, not as a natural, preordained "creation," but a theoretical construction of a "curcumscribed set of texts felt to be of special value"[1] by the various institutions of the art world.

"A work of art is of value only if it is valued, and if it can be valued only in relation to some particular set of valuational criteria, be they moral, political or aesthetic. The problem of value is the problem of the social production of value; it refers to the ever ongoing process whereby which texts are to be valued and on what grounds... Value is not something which the text possesses. It is not an attribute of the text; it is rather something produced for the text."[2]

It is this aura of artistic value that constrains us to regard some things as "artistic" and some as not. The question now is: Who sets the standards and what compels us to adopt these standards? Who codifies the protocol of art?

Criticism and Theory

A critic writes: "Different criticisms... propose different concepts of "literature," although all agree that 'literature' is to be defined as, in one sense or another, a special type of writing which needs to be dealt with by a special level of theorizing... Ultimately, the 'literature' with which different critical traditions deal is not the same 'literature.' Even when there is a broad agreement about precisely which texts are to be regarded as 'literary,' these may be held to be 'literary' in quite different ways and may, accordingly, be approached and studied from quite different perspectives with often radically different aims in view."[3]

Given the differences in the paradigms and knowledge systems through which the practice of art is appraised, it is necessary to understand the specific conceptual frameworks informing these critical strategies. For this purposes of a Humanities course, it might be fruitful to zero in on the strongest tendencies that underlie evaluations of texts--that is, those centering on the opposition between "form" and "content" or between "formalistic/intrinsic" and "sociological/extrinsic" perspectives.

Form and Content

It was German philosopher Immanuel Kant who foregrounded the notion of aesthetic pleasure as that which is to be distinguished from other pleasures and as that which is disinterested. Asthetic disinterest is a result of "disciplining the senses," of perceiving something not as means but as an end and achievement in itself, of grasping something for its own sake and not for any other purpose--be it moral, social, political, or other.

It is basically this concept of aesthetic disinterest that steels the core of the formalist method. Formalist criticism privileges technique as the acme of artistic endeavor, sequestering the text as a private domain so that it could be ransacked of an inner logic not referrable to "external" contexts, but to a formal configuration of defamiliarizing devices hermetically contained therein. To defamiliarize, according to Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky, is "to make objects 'unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged."[4]

It is the purpose of art to "recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony"[5] through the various formal devices the artist employs to render reality in a particular style, to wrest reality "away from the terms of seeing they propose, thereby making it the focus of renewed interest and attentiveness."[6] Formalist technicism thus lays bare how art's repertoire of techniques constructs reality, revealing the modes with which it works on habitual perception--everyday experience, object, event, and so on--and the manner in which it transforms the clichés of common sense into artifacts of art through the deliberate handling of the various elements.

Pursuing the argument of what is referred to as the "intrinsic approach," scholars Rene Wellek and Austin Warren insist that literature "has its own justification and aim," and that the "chief and prime function of art" is "fidelity to its own nature."[7] American poet Archibald Macleish states that "The poem should not mean but be"[8] and Jose Garcia Villa[9] can only supplement the vision:

Proem

The meaning of a poem is not a meaning
of words.
The meaning of a poem is a symbol like
the breathlessness of birds.
A poem cannot be repeated in paraphrase.

A poem is not a though but a grace.

A poem has no meaning but loveliness.
A poem has no purpose than to caress.

The most fatal implication of the formalist premise, in spite of its vision of transgressing the conventionalized schemes of perception, is the severance of art from "life," or to be more accurate, from the discourses on life, precisely because, like a self-developing organism, art has a life autonomously unto itself. It is this distance and alienation that encourage us to valorize an art object as something worthy of and, in fact, requiring reverence and preservation, that renders the aesthetic document authentic and timeless.

Art in effect becomes a specialized field. It is a universe unto its own, a constellation of formal conventions, a Rubik's cube of the ideal/idealized reader who is supposed to intuit the truth of technique. The "intrinsic approach" finally freezes art in some transhistorical, crosscultural, classless, androgynous mode, and so effectively repressing its sociological determinations. It teaches us to forget that art is always situational, historical, ideological, culture and class specific, gender-sensitive, and sexualized.

But swinging to the other end of formalism is orthodox sociology which proposes that art is a direct reflection of its socio-economic environment, and so denies art its specific mode of articulation and signification. Art merely becomes a mirror that automatically reflects the images of the world at one particular moment. The artist in turn can only operate within the limits of that spatio-temporal surface, which is conceived in terms of linear, diachronic development. It is as if art were indistinguishable from the other aspects of reality, when in fact art can speak for itself, can configure and transform social reality artistically--a distinct social reality, to be sure, that does not forget the society from which it emerges, a distinct social reality that remembers its society as it is remembered by it.

A reductionist or simplistic assessment would therefore just grasp a text as pure form or pure determination of the economic.[10] It would be blind and deaf and mute to the overdetermined construction of the text as socio-historical practice and production, failing to account for the multiple forces that conspire to produce it, the vastly varied and oftentimes contentiously contradictory layers of mediation--political economy, aesthetic ideology, authorial background, institutional constraints, representational strategies, semiotic significance of form and style, medium and technique, and so on--that intervene in the projection of context into the text, and vice-versa, so that in the end both shall have become inextricably intertwined.

Worse, an analysis of a text could be altogether sapped of rigour as in humanist, moralist, romantic, and biographical methods in which the text is merely teased out for the metaphysical significant human experience, moral calculations on good and evil, the divine inspiration of genius, and authorial intention. These modes of analysis do not give justice to the complexity of art and its production.

We have to inevitably realize that to understand Philippine painter Fernando Amorsolo, for example, is to implicate the numerous factors which could have come into play in the making of his works, to situate his status and his works as part of the complex historical articulations of his time and the conditions under which we make sense of them today, as part of the "specific overdetermined conjuncture" of his society, our history, and the future.

We must study his artistic vocabulary that mainly consisted of pastoral themes--rural idylls, harvest and fiesta scenes, dalagang bukid in pretty poses, sunsets--all evoking a sense of wartime nostalgia for the countryside which greatly appealed to tourists. We must inquire into his style that tried to capture the glowing effects of the Philippine sun on the landscape by employing the contra luz lighting technique and "topping off composition with chrome yellow lights to accent contours where the backlight struck."[11] We must learn about his preoccupation with the oil-on-canvas and painterly style that he maximized to simulate the density, texture, and luster of supposedly natural surroundings.

We must not neglect any discussion of the general mode of production during the time when he practised his art and his social situation as Filipino artist working within the American colonial context, which had introduced the privately owned gallery as a pivotal node in the distribution and marketing process, indeed an institution of patronage no longer controlled by the Church and the highly exclusive elite circle as it had been during Spanish colonial Philippines. We must not paper over his popularity as artist-celebrity who practically dominated the art scene for almost three decades (1920s-40s) and became known for his illustrations in advertisements for the car Marquette and the soap Ivory, in movie posters for Ideal Theater, in brochures and programs for the 1924 Manila Carnival.

We must not be remiss in evaluating the artistic education he acquired from the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts, the premier art school of the time which considered as models paintings of classico-romantic sensibility; and from the Royal Academy of San Fernando through which the aesthetic temper of Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, and Jose Rizal was forged. We must be illuminated on his avowed admiration for the Velasquez style and his hesitance to embrace modernism as this would entail "jumping over the rules of good taste and beauty."[12] We must be able to contextualize his conservative position in relation to the moderns's as espoused by the likes of Galo Ocampo, who had declared that he was already "sick" of the Amorsolo school. We must think about his stagnation as artist at a juncture in his career when he would be so swamped with local and international commissions that he had to come up with a catalogue of photographs from which customers could choose. Lastly, we must calculate the effects of his canonization by the Marcos government as National Artist.

To say that art is solely a function of form or a mirror of its economic milieu is to posit the idea that art as a category of cultural practice is not invested with specific determinations which precisely make it "real"--not realistic, surely; realism being just one of the ways of constructing and constituting reality--but unnatural, and so simplify the reasons by which artistic productions are introduced to the world. It indeed negates the position that culture does not, because it cannot, transcend its complex relationships with historical conditions.

Moreover, culture cannot escape that which bears on it because culture is not merely a display window of lifeways and worldviews, something abstract and ideational, something out of the distant past and up there in the clouds. Culture is always part of the daily struggle to cut spaces in the processes of social formation and representation.

There is no one world; there is no one society. There is no one culture; there is no one art. There are, however, assiduous and systematic attempts to set up and privilege norms, morals, and modes of social relations. In other words, there is a canon or a set of cultural practices and productions propped up as the concretization of the "aesthetic" and of "civilization," of "Art" and "Culture," in the process interpreting culture as universal, reified from the mechanisms and power relations in the social formation.

The canon operates according to the inclusion/exclusion principle. If there are certain texts, discourses, knowledges, and practices that are included and epitomized, there are also certain texts, discourses, knowledges, and practices that are excluded and preempted. It must be insisted that the canon exercises this dominative role from a position of power. The existence of the canon, undoubtedly, spawns a network of problems.

Why do we, for instance, assume that something is art? Why do we assume that a notion of art exists? (CONTINUATION | HOME)


Endnotes

[1] Tony Bennett, Formalism and Marxism (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1979), 7.
[2] Bennett, 173.
[3] Bennett, 8.
[4] Victor Shklovsky, "Art as Technique," Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, ed. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh (London: Edward Arnold, 1989, 18-19.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Bennett, 155.
[7] Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature, (USA Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949)
[8] Archibald Macleish, "Ars Poetica," Prism, ed. Yolanda Tomeldan et al. (Manila: National Bookstore Inc., 1986), 427.
[9] Damiana Eugenio, et al, eds. A Textbook in Freshman English, (Quezon City: Phoenix Publishing House, Inc., 1978), 627-628.
[10] For Terry Eagleton, the text or art work is more than an artifice or social document: "It is never merely a 'reflection' or 'expression' of historical forces, but a specific, highly codified social practice with its own conditions of material production and reception, its own conventions, devices and histories. Its ideological significance is to be sought not merely in its abstractable political content, but more rewardingly in its forms--in its narrative structures and generic rules, its habits of language and characterization, its mode of imagery and technical mechanisms. History and ideology are not merely the extraneous outworks of a literary text: as the intimately informing pressures at work within its very capacity to signify, they are constitutive of its very being." (in A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms, ed. Roger Fowler (London: Routledge, 1987), 143.
[11] Alfredo R. Roces, Amorsolo (Manila: Filipinas Foundation, Inc. 1975), 12.
[12] Roces, 179.