On Pretentious Art

What makes “pretentious” art?

Obviously not in the art itself, not in its formal aspects, not in the way a cinematic shot takes fifteen-minutes long and not the more standard five seconds in Hollywood, not in the way a black square is superimposed on a red rectangle, not in the way sentences are cut short in the midd, not in the way language calls attention to itself, say, by changing mula Filipino to cambiar, grammar notwithstanding.

Pretentious art becomes in the manner of seeing, the tools in analyzing and judging.

Pretentious because there is an expectation of honesty from art, of art knowing what it is trying to achieve, trying to articulate, of art knowing the limits of its powers, harnessing its chosen forms and techniques to match with what it is trying to achieve, trying to articulate. INSTEAD OF SOMETHING THAT PRETENDS TO KNOW WHAT IT IS DOING WITH THE VISUAL POEM? THE ERRATIC MONTAGE IN FILM? THE ABSENCE OF SOUND IN MUSIC?

Less pretentiously on my part, pretentious art is made by the lack of the proper and necessary education and venues for conversation to make sense of, grapple, grasp and fondle such works of art. This kind of education is not a very humble thing to ask given the millions who do not even know how to read or write. Pretentious art is made by the lack, or more aptly the inequality of access to these works of art of cultural works. Access to these things not a very humble thing to ask given the millions who do not even have access to food or clean water.

I see Vice Ganda dancing all day and then one day I see Lav Diaz opening a movie with a scene where nothing happens for 88 minutes.

For some—or most?—“pretentious” art is even an anomaly. Majority of artworks, of cultural works—from a ten-peso rental of a Precious Hearts Romance to Arundhati Roy’s much-awaited The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Kathniel’s kilig flick from Star Cinema to Lars’ Nymphomaniac—are not a pretense to them. It is a luxury.

That famous image from Un Chien Andalou

The “Bansa” Is Here and Yet Nakakunot-Noo Tayo

In a writing workshop I attended last May, Jun Cruz Reyes asked us, younger writers, Asan ang bansa sa mga akda nyo? Thinking about this question days after the workshop, I am prodded: is the question of the nation not a very significant one – if not “the” question to ponder — especially in our times today when the emphasis is either on the “global” or on the “local”? We know very well how the current period is celebrated as the period of globalization, where from Baguio, you can easily contact your friend working as an English teacher in Australia; or where people from Japan, Nigeria, La Trinidad and basically anywhere where there is reliable internet connection get informed at the same time of the winners in the Cannes Film Festival or the Miss Universe pageant. But on the other hand, discreetly as a response to the too widely encompassing breadth of globalization, there is the call to not forget the local, to reach back to one’s roots, to remain grounded and rooted in the face of the promises of mobility.

Is not the question of the nation the most proper and productive vantage point from which we can make sense of our everyday, diverse experiences? It does not have the totalizing and simplifying tendency of the global nor does it have the too specific positioning of the local. How rarely do we recognize that for all equalizing effects of globalization, however tenuous or delusive – the Internet for instance where ‘everyone’ can meet and interact and avail of its offerings – there are the grimmer social and political realities that fuel global phenonema? Are our notions of globalization filled with children from undeveloped nations laboring under tough working condition, most of the time unwillingly, and under the auspices of multinational, global companies? Does globalization ever mean to us the plundering of the resources of Third World countries by mega corporations from the First World who control exactly the technologies needed to turn these raw products into finished goods? For all the cutesiness of the global is a terribly malnourished child or worker from poor countries assembling the laptops that we eventually gloat at – and if we are a bit lucky or slaving, purchase — in malls.

Then there is the local, whose more vital contribution is its stress on groundedness. The local, most likely containing the practices, the belief systems, the diurnal ways of life, is closest to us. It involves the way people literally mobilize themselves (in Baguio, one can bike, ride the jeepney or the taxis, which are cheaper than in Manila), the way people form notions related to sexuality (what is it with the ubiquity of the barrel man?) or the venues where they gather to express themselves (from the dap-ay to poetry open mics). Ideas and ways of doing things are formed and shaped first via these first-hand encounters before they were shaped by more distanced sources, say the Internet or books.

During the workshop, a fellow from Iligan City, commenting on the name of one character in the play we were looking at, pointed out that “Katalagman,” the name of one of the protagonists, means “delubyo” in their language. The scriptwriter – and most of the members of the panel and the other fellows — was unaware of this. This scenario exemplifies the potential richness that can be revealed when various specific localities and cultures talk to one another. Is this not a meaningful detour from the regionalist tendency that usually leads to destructive and competitive clashes instead of productive collaborations? This is the downside of the local. Whereas the global pretends that all of us are equal (Never mind that a few is profiting from the work of many, we all have internet access anyway!) the local has this risk of reaching isolation, if not exoticization. Is the same not slightly at work when we come to identify places or communities with certain events or things? Say, Bohol and tarsier; Baguio and Panagbenga; the Kalingas and headhunting; the Mindanao populace and the demonized Moro. Sometimes, these typecast attributions are just too simplifying, eliding the complex histories and discourses that are really pulsating on the ground; the worse case is when they are false and result to negative portrayals.

Where is the “nation” in all these ramblings? The nation is in the global as much as it is in the global. It sanctions the marketing of the barrel man and the subsequent dilution of its cultural meaning – hence: a delusion as well. The nation is that which is bereft of the suitable technologies to utilize its natural resources for the benefit of its people. The nation is in the crown worn by a Beauty Queen who, to consider it kindly, was compelled by the very arena where she sought to please to say that her country’s colonizer is really its BBF. It is the entire complex of the nation that helps in pushing one to go abroad and teach English in Australia. The nation offers one good vantage point from which we can see the interrelatedness of things: a task often assigned to the writer, but must be the preoccupation of all.

It is not enough to narrate the nation, as cued by Homi Bhabha. Deleuze was laughing when he said that “to create was always something else than to communicate.” The nation is not just a symbol, a mere effect of language. Similarly, writers looking for, locating, inscribing the ‘nation’ in their works are not foolhardy wordsmiths fashioning the ‘nation’ in their works merely with the power of their words. These writers are sweaty, back sinking, sometimes kinky, sometimes slinking. And the nation is too big and yet that is precisely why they cannot find it; and then the writers – us all — will realize that the “bansa” is to be found not because it is lost – it is to be found because it is everywhere and yet it does not make sense.

PUP Mulanay
Fellows at Panelists sa PUP Workshop. (Hindi akin ang kuhang ito. Most likely ay sa Secretariat ng Workshop.)


De Certeau cites Kant, “If theory has still little effect on practice, it is not theory’s fault; it is rather that there is not enough of the sort of theory that one should have learned from experience” (from: The Practice of Everyday Life, 1988).

*it can also be theory’s fault, in a way, for being envisaged as separate from practice. or it is not theory’s fault that it is being envisaged as such.

**the theory that comes before practice is as important as the theory that comes after it; conversely, the practice that comes after theory is as important as the practice that comes before it.

***some words are more evanescent than others.

You talk too much
You talk too much

Yummy revisitations of Russian Formalism

“And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. …. the technique of art 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. Art is a way of expressing the artfulness of an object…

(Viktor Shklovsky, Art as Technique)

Russian formalist here
Russian formalist here

Poetry, and language, and sense, and the material

That is quite a charming phrase actually, “language’s resilience against sense,” coming from the collection of my poet-friend and which is difficult to lead astray from the memory of the signifier-signified. Ironically, the earlier Charles Peirce, once transposed well into the contemporary time, provides a necessary extension of the more famous ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure, particularly the latter’s signifier-signified dichotomy. Peirce already formulated the needed inclusion of the ‘interpretant’ that shall mediate between the representation (‘tanda’ o ‘signos’) and the object, what I read as roughly corresponding to the Saussurean signifier and signified. This third term, the ‘interpretant’ is essential for it gives a material grounding to the signifier-signified pair whose analyses mainly revolves within the realms of language and thought (‘sense,’ in Janine’s author’s note). And the expansion of the horizon where poetry (first as thought or sense, and then as language) dwells and springs is complicated when we recall a key facet of its existence: the more material facet of the tangible, breathable world, more closely, the poet who wields the pen, who thinks and who utilizes language.

Hence, I suggest that poetry is more than the already gallant task of prodding language’s ‘resilience against sense,’ notwithstanding how charmingly we put into words such insights. Poetry, with all its encapsulating the poet and her thoughts and faculty and manipulation of language, anticipates attrition and then revival from its perpetuated engagement with the material world. This engagement does not exactly signify language’s resurgence against the material (the world), but its keeping at pace with this material unfolding, either through representing it, or challenging it, or transforming it.

Mula ito sa Adivay
Mula ito sa Adivay

Since now’s the time for summer outings

The camera thus makes a great deal in capturing us standing cheerily beside a tourist spot’s landmark. Encompassing De Certeau and Andre Bazin (“the charm of family albums… no longer traditional family portraits but rather the disturbing presence of the lives halted at a set moment in their duration, freed from their destiny….”) and feminists insisting on the politics of the body, the photograph, with its ironically frozen materiality, serves as a scintillating piece of object that designates our previous, but also in a way, eternalized situation. We ARE in, say, Camp John Hay, or the gondolas in Venice, or in Puerto Princesa, Palawan; we (care of our body) are in these tourist attractions (care of the markers of these attractions, following De Certeau). And this is a plus especially since we are a people who are proud of going to places, of making experiences.

Somewhere sa Burnham park, Baguio City
Somewhere sa Burnham park, Baguio City

Scarce Fun in Panagbenga: a rewriting of Baguio and its popular festival

Even with the passing of the weekend highlighting the Panagbenga festival, the start of Session in Bloom does not remit the raping of Baguio City in different ways.

It was a little hapless for my friends and I who were compelled by the tasks awaiting us outside to leave our homes last weekend because we were not able to completely escape the festivities we would know no better than to loathe and criticize. The dulcet of Panagbenga does not yet appear to be fading and year after year, it continues to attract nearly a million of tourists and spectators who most likely expect to experience the “Baguio” advertised since they were children by various media (the “It’s more fun…” tourism campaign being one of the most recent). I surmise that most of them, especially the tourists are disgruntled afterwards; whatever satisfaction they might have gleaned from attending the festivities is tremendously offset less by fatigue and the expenses than the fact that the Baguio they came to see (cool, clean, green, poetic, convenient) is far from the Baguio they actually expended money to be in. The longer I stay in Baguio and the more Panagbengas that pass by the calendars, it appears that Baguio becomes less and less of the paradise that it is being broadcasted in the dominant media. However, its appeal lingers. And the quietly irksome experience my friends and I had to grapple with over the weekend when we were going home – the flood of people, the hills of trash everywhere, and the resulting wheezing of the atmosphere with the volume of vehicles – is very telling: people still go and rave about the Panagbenga.

Mga "namumulaklak"  na bata sa Panagbenga(from: http://baguio.sunstar.com.ph/panagbenga/)
Mga “namumulaklak” na bata sa Panagbenga
(from: http://baguio.sunstar.com.ph/panagbenga/)

Panagbenga float

The power of festivities

Following Raymond Williams, one of the most-read Cultural critics of the 20th century, festivities are powerful rituals ingrained in one’s culture and as such, ingraining particular ways of looking at the world. With their repetition, these festivities have an appeal to normalcy which the members of the community and also the other participants can mindlessly experience as they occur again and again. From what I know, the Panagbenga tradition was supposed to be inspired by the idea of celebrating the springing of flowers in the region. This is the logic behind the weekend highlight events: the float parade and the street dance. As I have seen from the pictures (in my seven-year stay here, I have never attended any Panagbenga ceremony live, and I am very proud and gleeful to admit and do just that), these events are suffused with flowers, natural or otherwise, in line with the cause (or: cost) of celebration. However, contradictions need to be pointed out in order to elucidate the key, underlying politics of Panagbenga.

For one, the floral industry, as far as geography is concerned, is more vigorous in La Trinidad and other parts of Benguet than in Baguio. In my entire stay here, I have associated Baguio with deceptively fancy restaurants and establishments and the “center of ‘commerce’ in the North” tag more than anything else, certainly more than a blooming floral industry. Apparently too, its old prestige as the pristine “Summer Capital” mode has been slowly blotted by the increasing population (yes, including me), increasing pollution (noise, waste and air) and the decreasing verdure (the SM case being the recent straw that seemed to finally slap those who can claim to love the city). Hence, I assert that the Panagbenga festival, aside from being spurred by its cultural function, is also motivated by its commercial function. It is at this point that tourism becomes a more glaring point. However, at the expense of added coffers for the local government are multiple truckloads of garbage and the less obvious contributions to the deterioration of the environment – something that Baguio, as the OLD Summer Capital, used to enshrine and was supposed to nurture.

The crumbling of the glossy Baguio and de Certeau’s wise advice

Part of the discourse of tourism concerning Panagbenga is the entire city where the festivities are done and which undeniably enjoys a likewise strong potential for tourism – Baguio. The Summer capital tag, the pine trees, the cool weather, the “booming” “industries,” the educational centers – all of these contribute to the popularity of Baguio as a destination both for tourists and eventual migrants. This positive tourism baggage which Baguio carries is certainly a plus factor in selling Panagbenga to highlanders and lowlanders alike. After the holiday season, most of the peoples’ attention and buzz shift to the forthcoming Panagbenga. This is egged and further reinforced by the dominant media’s share in building the hype for the festivities. From the television to the pamphlets on the streets being distributed to the tourists, the idea is to design Baguio and its Panagbenga festival as a delectable experience that one should not miss. These images of Baguio and Panagbenga being circulated leading to the date of the festivities are part of what Michel de Certeau calls “legends” that we utilize in navigating a city. Mostly, these legends glamorize the city and they do this for various reasons (for commerce, for culturally fixing a well-defined image of the city), but primarily for one thing: to hide something else. In his popular essay, “Walking in the City,” de Certeau hails the process of walking as something that we can utilize in order to annul the “legends” circulated about the city we are in. As he puts it, “Travel is a substitute for the legends that used to open up space to something different.”

Utilizing this framework, I am highly confident that the ambulants in last weekend’s highlights, and of the continuing Session in Bloom of the Panagbenga did not fail to notice the swarming garbage around them, and around the reputed “clean and green” city up North (unless they have selective sight), and the morning-to-afternoon heat which might have not squared with their expectations of the weather when they came here. These sun-soaked experiences should be more than sufficient to erase the images promulgated in the “legends” and images of Baguio and Panagbenga. To compound on the propositions of de Certeau, I believe that the living ground where we and the Panagbenga proceedings are, is self-evident in calling our attention and encourage us to defamiliarize the normative projections of Baguio City and its much-touted celebrations every February. Because ultimately, what should define the city and everything that transpires inside it should not be the task of pamphlets and other images to determine; that task is ours, the people breathing in late afternoon smog and parched by the late morning heat, forging survival in a Baguio City departing from the self-motivated idealizations by the dominant media.

A galactic throw for poetry can still be worth a shot

What is poetry about but about experiences. Thus, it entails both a subject and an object – the experiencer and the experienced; which if we may recall, is one of the dualities that have long mesmerized and perhaps taunted most philosophers and thinkers for their wish to reconcile the two despite of a seemingly inevitable failure. The self and the world – this is just another way of putting the two terms consisted in this enduring duality.

Perhaps this is where people like Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James and Arthur Schopenhauer are coming from, albeit in diverse manners and with inflections, when they attribute to poetry a certain distinction and potential. Poe, in “The Poetic Principle,” tells something about the “unity of impression” which is more achievable in shorter poems. I read this as Poe’s claiming of the most claimable truths we can have in this supposedly fragmented world that persistently evades totalization. On his part, Ralph Waldo Emerson enjoined the scholar to be “covetous of action” and to be in quest of a “variety of experiences.” Is this not the intense intercourse between self and world, without any pressure of achieving an encompassing unity, being advised by literary critics and poets even before our time? The Romantics are mostly remembered for this esteem put on poets and the partial-order to “recreate” elements of nature.

Definitely, the post-structural dispersion of incoherence and uncertainty which they try to make up for by opening the terrain for creativity and production,  exerted an immense influence to the continuing negotiation between the self and the world and humanity’s overall enterprise to placate, if not make something sensible out of the latter. Having burgeoned at a time when wars have been waged among nations, people were killing one another by virtue of a creed, a race or power, the negative anxiety posed by the post-structural trend seem to expectedly overrule the positive appendage of an increased potential for creativity amidst the open-endedness.

Still, I am for according the poet the same insightful privilege given to her by the discourses that endured in previous generations. Amidst all the terrors and contradictions in a world seemingly complicating more and more with innovations and disasters coexisting with a much problematic human psyche, I believe poetry should take the cudgels and clobber the walls of illusions and delusions that cause humanity to err further at this point in time. With verses that ideally gain a certain level of recognition and eventually control over the world around us, albeit momentarily, I believe we can altogether forge ahead with a less uncertain outlook  towards the world where we live. This shall not be fettered by a futile hope on attaining a consolation from an Eternal or Divine Truth that perhaps we think can finally guide and enlighten our lives. This shall be nurtured by a rose-colored attitude towards the potential for productivity and ceaseless motion and growth that will come from a contradicting yet productive bond between us, humanity and the world.

On “beautiful” poetry

For the sake of submitting to a rather pressing query of a buddy here at Facebook, I will find some time to elaborate on my personal take on what is “beautiful” poetry.

This is truly, at the beginning, a difficult question to answer, a difficult requirement to satisfy. For of all the preaching of post-structuralism, especially dating back to Nietzsche and all the problematic encounters with different understandings of and positions regarding the aesthetics, the function of and the nature of poetry, this seemingly innocent and easy question becomes unwieldy.

But let me attempt to simplify things, and do away with the ornaments I sometimes feel necessary. Let me approach the aesthetic merits of a poem in terms of the two aspects we all know and I feel, embrace: form and content. It should be a different matter altogether, the issues inherent between these two, i.e. what should be deemed primary by the poet, or to begin with, should there be a primary consideration after all, are not these two supposed to go together, complement each other. As I state above, these considerations will not be dealt with exhaustively here, but its mere mentioning serves to show the surrounding surface that I tread on as I try to construct my view on the “beautiful” poetry.

In terms of content, there are hardly configurations or prescriptions. Poetry can be about anything – feces to blank spaces, Bill Gates to war armaments. Always, it is the form of a text which indicates its being poetic, of it being tagged as a “poem.” This is the more delicate matter which could require much of our finicky attention.

(As a subsequent insertion though, I feel like in terms of content, an important thing to consider is the position of the poet with respect to her subject matter. For my preference would be on the poet who consciously creates poetry about things and sees her poetry as necessarily implicated and participatory to the larger scope of things where her subject matter is likewise subsumed. Given this conscious knowledge of the poem’s (and the poet’s) absolute implication and participation in everything external to it, the poet can take better advantage of his craft if she launches her poetic productions as an active response to its external environment.)

In terms of form, a poem becomes such if it is able to defamiliarize that which its aims to talk about at the beginning. Deriving this from the school of Russian Formalism and acquired and rewritten by succeeding poetic movements and practitioners, my personal rendering of this term is that is materializes the abstract and lends a new light in viewing the seemingly already concrete so that the readers can gain a new experience of this material object. I cannot speak of technique for this is something which my present dispositions do not exactly promote, much more adhere to. Say, we can speak of visual contortions, line breaks, caesura, inclusion of pictorial elements and other “innovations” that have been ushered or tried to be ushered in the past decades. But I cannot claim that any of these “techniques,” when employed and employed well will instantly constitute “beautiful” poetry.

I think I would like to rest this case by concluding with regards to the “affective experience” the poem brings about to the readers. However, this “affective experience” I am citing here should not be likened to the thing New Criticism criticized in favor of the text’s “organic unity” they so valued. I am talking of affective experience as informed by the reader-response theory and concepts such as intertextuality, the often notorious post-structural open-endedness and a generally humanist tone that privileges the human agency and its capacity for choice. To me, the beauty of poem would lie on its effects on the readers. If the reader was able to make something out of the poem; that is, if he was able to gain some insight that might change her perspective or more preferably, spur her into action; if the readers fight against the poem, destroy it, wrap it in her arms, kill it, torture it, own it, reshuffle it and rewrite as new, perhaps the poem succeeds at being beautiful.

Lastly, I do not intend, and will never intend to sound or appear teleological here. If not for the grammatical conventions I am sometimes forced to comply with, I would not prefer doing this: “I.” For in speaking here of the constitution of a beautiful poem, I do not want to be like the sermons at some obscure mountains of the ancient times, or our elementary school textbooks, or the Law, or the State. You know where I am coming from. So let us start the discourse now!