The state of culture under Duterte

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How can artists gather themselves, and how should their art engage with a time of political controversy? In photo: Mark Justiniani, Elmer Borlongan, and Emmanuel Garibay's mural "Tagadagat." Photo by JL JAVIER

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Arts and culture have taken a backseat to the war on drugs in the time of President Rodrigo Duterte.

While fiercely popular — Duterte garnered an 82 percent approval rating in the latest Pulse Asia Survey — the past year has been fraught with controversy, including a siege in Marawi City and what human rights organizations peg to be about 9,000 drug-related killings.

Throughout all these events, artists set to work. Literature, film, music, theater, and art are a testament to the times — so how do these forms engage with the uncertainty of our state of politics? Moreover, how can artists craft their works to be engaging in an impactful way?

Consider, for example, how quickly American artists organized themselves after the election of President Donald Trump: making poetry viral and, as the New York Times put it, “refusing to go gentle, raged against the right.”

These are the possibilities that columnist Katrina Stuart Santiago, who has been critiquing culture since 2009, explored in her talk “A Question of Resistance” on July 30 at 98B at the First United Building on Escolta. Santiago seeks to flesh out the state of culture in the first year of Duterte, and what artists can do to respond.

Santiago is an author, literary critic, and cultural advocate, who has written for numerous publications including Rogue, GMA News Online, and The Manila Times.

The following points of action are not exclusive to a time of troll farms or the new culture police. These are suggestions on how local artists can proceed in any toxic terrain, and how they can band together despite their differences.

We must be critical of government institutions for the arts.

While government structures for the arts are necessary, they are also subject to politics. Presidential appointments to institutions like the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), and Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) make the leadership susceptible to partisanship and the disruption of continuity. New officials also need not be necessarily qualified for the parts they take on.

MMFF - Die Beautiful.png Jun Robles Lana's "Die Beautiful" was one of the eight new films that competed in 2016's "revamped" Metro Manila Film Festival. Screencap from YOUTUBE/OCTOBER TRAIN FILMS

It is also the duty of cultural workers to question and pursue discourse on the way things are run in these institutions. Ask questions like: Should MTRCB have the right to censor films? Why is the Metro Manila Film Festival run by an agency primarily assigned to alleviating traffic? Should art be apolitical, as the CCP Chairman Nick Lizaso implied in his "transformative vision" for the center?

And although privileged artists can bypass these institutions and produce their own work outside of them, Santiago says, it should be noted that public funds are spent in these endeavors.

“If they are so irrelevant, then abolish them. If they are still relevant, and there's hope for changing them, then change them properly, with the right process, with the right people,” says Santiago. “There are a lot of regional organizations ... theater groups and artist collectives that actually need the funding from the [National Commission for Culture and the Arts], that actually get to Manila on [CCP] grants.”

One can also read up on the Philippine Development Plan, Chapter 7 of which details a government vision for culture and values.

Cultural workers need an organized movement that backs their rights.

Santiago suggests that cultural workers from across disciplines — literature, film, music, theater, and visual arts — organize themselves into a union, or at least a body that seeks to protect its members. This includes standing for fair payment, laborers’ rights, and representation.

“If you gathered a bunch of artists who are actually not on the same side about aesthetics or practice or politics, [and] if you ask all of them, 'Do you want an artist union that will protect your rights and that will be able to negotiate with government, that will be able to negotiate with institutions ... gallery owners, producers, publishers about your work?' I do not doubt all artists will say yes,” says Santiago.

“Criticism to me is always an act of hope. It means that I want things to be better.” - Katrina Stuart Santiago

Such an arrangement should be willing to embrace diversity: women, youth, and even artists from the left. It would also entail artists having to overcome their own types of infighting — disagreements on aesthetics and politics — but as Santiago puts it, “We don't have to be friends in order to have an organization.”

“Why can't we just respect each other as cultural workers? We don't have to like each other's work,” she adds. “At a time like this, when it seems important to go beyond the personal ... it doesn't matter.”

Artists have to reevaluate their artistic approach to social issues.

Artists should also interrogate whether their art is making a dent, and not just contribute to the normalization of what should be alarming. Specifically, Santiago expressed concern over a university-set exhibit about the war on drugs; it utilized large reprints of photos of the killings and an installation of body bags. However, as the exhibit drew on, students just bypassed the work.

“We're at a point where it doesn't matter anymore that there's an image of a dead body, and I don't know that art wants to be complicit in that enterprise of making us even more desensitized to those images,” says Santiago.

How artists can engage meaningfully with their audience, especially at a time like this, is a project that has yet to find its form. After all, there have been few — almost none at all — artistic endeavors in the past few years that stood up to shake a fist at oppression in a Philippine context, and was cheered on by the general public.

Santiago has a concrete suggestion: to stop discussing the drug war in the context of Marcos’ martial law, or comparing the president to the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. While combating historical revisionism is undoubtedly necessary, today’s tense political situation, heightened by cyber-harassment and new ways of policing free speech, is its own beast.

“We don't have that kind of secrecy now,” says Santiago, referring to days when a body count was withheld from the public. “This is a government ... and a state of culture and discourse that actually lives off showing us images of the dead, that actually lives off talking about violence.”

“It's a totally different time, and I think to use martial law as an anchor is also what keeps us from being relevant.”

tongue in a mood.jpg Surrounding Jose Tence Ruiz's “Tongue in a mood” (photographed during the February 2017 Art Fair) are electric chairs — a timely symbol in light of the apparent revival of the death penalty in the Philippines. Photo by JL JAVIER

Artists need to collectively produce statement work.

A statement by 50 artists is stronger than a stand by one artist, Santiago suggested. By the same vein, a collection of literary works from various writers across the aesthetic and political spectrum can hold more impact than isolated work; an album by various musicians lends more urgency than a single; and a collective stand more so than a single Facebook status.

“I think at a time of control and silencing, one of the more powerful lessons I've learned is it would be so much easier if I were part of an organization that not only would it be listened to ... but also if there was a support system, and that's what artists need,” says Santiago.

Building a support system and community could also help in countering what Santiago calls “new forms of silencing,” or online attacks that deter discourse.

We must take a stand based on issues, not personalities.

Finally, artists should take issue-based stands, as opposed to siding for or against a certain person. After people join and retire from politics, after all, issues persist across all administrations: be it farmer’s rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, or human rights.

Moreover, Santiago says, aligning yourself for or against a certain personality lets one miss out on the possibility of talking to people on the other side of the fence.

“I also do think [that] you never need to take sides. I think you look at an issue and take a stand on a certain issue,” she says.

The same goes for schools of thought for one’s own artistic or cultural discipline. Santiago says that in the same way we interrogate government structures for culture, we must also be hyper-aware of the private institutions we work with and the stances they take on certain issues.

“The first thing young artists should do is to be critical of the institutions they are necessarily a part of,” Santiago says.

“Why can't we just respect each other as cultural workers? We don't have to like each other's work,” says Katrina Stuart Santiago. “At a time like this, when it seems important to go beyond the personal ... it doesn't matter.”

That includes asking questions like whether the work being collected and produced are representative of a plural community, including women and the youth; whether your gallery owners or sponsors have questionable practices or business endeavors; and what their limitations are, as well as points for improvement.

And this does not mean that they should automatically be boycotted or foregone, but rather engaged with based on the issues at hand.

“The first step is really to know that criticism is something that's really integral to your creativity,” says Santiago. “Criticism to me is always an act of hope. It means that I want things to be better.”