The year 2018 certainly was the biggest and most diverse yet for the Art Fair Philippines, as it occupied every inch of The Link. For the first time in six years, there was a platform for photography and the organizers implemented timed entries to accommodate the expected number of attendees: 40,000 and rising. Additionally, Manila joined the Biennale community this year which it first held in Intramuros. It was not as grand a show as a Biennale could be expected, nevertheless, it was a successful one. A roster of global and local artists contributed more than 40 installations. On a regular week day, about 200 visitors availed the walking tour; this number doubled on weekends, excluding those who went DIY.
Such popularity echoed Ben Davis’s discussion in Art and Inequality (2013) where he presented reasons for the necessity of art fairs. It was a response of galleries and dealers to the pressure to compete with auction houses and to tap the global art market. Art collection, traditionally a domain of the elite, is brought nearer to the masses, in the aim to sell more especially work by emerging artists.
These fairs succeed in terms of the number of attendees it attracts but it burdens the exhibitors as well with the huge risk of spending sums of money with a high probability of not selling enough to break even. For this reason, international exhibitors in Singapore are transferring to the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia because rent in these developing countries is cheaper than in a first world country. Its major art fair, the Art Stage Singapore, is experiencing a steady decline in the number of exhibitors. Since its inception in 2011, this year was the smallest with only 84 exhibitors compared to 131 in 2017 and to 170 in 2016.
Philippines, an emerging global art hub
How are Filipinos responding to growing platforms for art? Among other factors, it is the number of attendees and how much it stirs reactions or engagement in social media which could decide whether an event is successful. A huge portion of their audience visit merely to Instagram that they had to send out a public plea to avoid taking too much time taking a photo of or with an artwork. At the time of writing, 45,648 posts have used the official hashtag of Art Fair Philippines. Among these photos are candid shots with a sculpture, portraits with an artwork as the background, and the artworks themselves accompanied by a caption that is deep enough but could totally be unrelated to the artwork.
#ArtFairPh and #MNLBNL2018 were not the only ones who took advantage of this millennial craze to create a certain cultured and artsy persona in the virtual world. Even museums have learned to market themselves for free through these photo opportunities—take the Vargas Museum as an example which encourages the use of #vargasvisit. Besides, Instagram has tremendously affected the way we consume art. It is just wise for them to abandon their no-taking-of-photos policy.
Listicles on which artists to follow on Instagram are continuously being published by lifestyle editorials in the past years. The title “Most Instagrammable Artist” even exists, which Yayoi Kusama currently holds. Her exhibition Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow is a record breaking in the history of National Gallery Singapore with at least 235,000 attendees before deciding to extend their operating hours in the last three days of the exhibition to accommodate last minute attendees coming from all parts of Southeast Asia. #SGLovesKusama has been tagged to 12,936 posts. No wonder my Instagram feed last year had been flooded by friends with #OOTD shots in a polka-dotted room and selfies in infinity mirrors.
However, just because more young Filipino audience is more engaged in the art scene does not necessarily follow that we are becoming more appreciative and critical of art. We engage with art superficially.
Mona Lisa versus Sabel, Prescriptive versus reflective
This attitude has been cultivated partly because of our trivial art classroom. Dr. Beverly Sarza, an assistant professor of Philosophy in De La Salle University-Manila who specializes in aesthetics and philosophy of art, shared her sentiments about the incompetency of our education even in the supposedly improved K-12 curriculum. The pre-K-12 gave much importance on the Western art that “…Filipino students are more knowledgeable about Mona Lisa than Sabel”. The danger of such is that it murders their own art. This is addressed in K-12 by including local and indigenous arts. However, it still holds within the framework of what-to-think rather than of how-to-think. Precisely, it is easier to teach art prescriptively. Dr. Sarza asserts that “If Philippines wants its art education to be relevant, critical thinking and open-mindedness should be at its center. Art classes should not be the ground zero of brown zombies memorizing classical or Renaissance art; instead, it should be a playground of ideas and activities where creativity and expression of both Western and local (indigenous and mainstream) arts are integrated.”
Learning to mystify art
Singaporean children as young as those in their primary education are immersed in art exhibitions held by private contemporary art institutions such as The Parkview Museum’s The Artist’s Voice early this year. Included in this were works of global and Singaporean contemporary artists that tackle the complexity of identity, existence, history, and class to display the power of expressive form. Seems too heavy for a child to grasp, agreed. However, there were no terminologies, which would be the main argument against this method; just pure ideas conveyed in simple words. Despite Singapore’s more serious identity crisis, young children being exposed to such kind of art is something that Filipinos should envy.
Filipino children are also brought to museums for field trips. Common location for these is the National Art Gallery where the Philippine history is taught through the artworks. In these guided tours, however, the artworks and the history are presented in light of the canonical artists instead of a deeper understanding of the artwork itself. This is not to demerit their role in the art history. They are canonical for a reason. But limiting children’s immersion only in such environment—the importance given to the artist outweighs the work itself—is the bone of contention. It teaches children to mystify works of art.
Mystification, as illustrated by John Berger in his Ways of Seeing (1972) “is the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident.” It is when an artwork is seen for who created it not in terms of the artist’s historical and social context but in terms of their reputation. Eventually, its provenance and monetary value—precisely how art has become a mere investment for the elite. Thus, it creates a sense of religiosity. These works by the blue chip and the speculative stock artists are presented in auction houses like a holy relic. Mystification is when discourses on everything about the artwork but the artwork itself are created. The art education that Filipino children had taught them nothing but a canon of works.
Boceto for Spoliarium by the Juan Luna, found!
Salcedo Auctions is extremely happy for selling Juan Luna’s Boceto for Spoliarium (1883) for P63 million – the highest price a Juan Luna painting ever achieved in his own country. When Richie Lerma broke the news that he found a Juan Luna, everyone celebrated with him. Why? Because it is a work by the Juan Luna.
His gigantic Spoliarium (1884) has somehow became the national art work. There is no need for an official proclamation to hail it as such, just look at how it is venerated. There is a particular interpretation that it is an allegory of the oppression Filipinos suffered from in the hands of the Spaniards. That could be correct. Some Filipinos even see him as a hero not knowing that this very work that won gold medal in the 1884 Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes was a mere attempt to keep up with the West’s academic art. He, together with Félix Resurrección Hidalgo, did prove, consciously or not, that Indios could paint better than the Spaniards but it does not change the fact that Luna admitted that he belonged to the sauvage race to receive a lighter sentence for allegedly murdering his wife and his mother-in-law.
How Instagram magnified the death of art
Mystification seems a lighter manifestation of the incompetency. At least, one can pretend one is cultured to know art. But mystification leads to the more alarming manifestation that can be found in social media. Visiting an art exhibition requires more than the sense of sight, at least for the visual arts. That’s the primary requirement, but it also requires being critical and being appreciative. Some would assert that Instagramming the artwork is a form of appreciation.
But what happens when an artwork is merely being Instagrammed? For the user, the mere act of taking a photo detracts them from encountering its true aesthetic experience. The appreciation of a work goes beyond one’s relationship to the work’s subject matter. It demands one’s consciousness to be fully present to experience the texture created by the medium, the difference the brush strokes made, the interaction of its colors, and so on. Appreciation does not demand a ground-breaking interpretation; it just demands to be felt.
For the viewer, it denies the artwork from being seen as it is. The way the artwork was photographed and the caption that goes with it destroys the opportunity to see it from a clean slate. A certain hype has been built which mystifies it because the work has been taken out of its original context.
What happens when an artwork is merely being Instagrammed? Instagram is being experienced, not the art; the function of Instagram, that is, to portray a certain persona which is the byproduct of fake knowing art. It defeats the very purpose of art.
But in this situation, art is not just the victim. It is the people who are deprived to experience–what has been wrongly appropriated by the millennials in their lingo–the true meaning of “aesthetic”. ■
(Illustration by Vince Cañete.)