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Image to meaning: essays on Philippine art
by Alice G. Guillermo
Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2001

Art in the Philippines has become big business for artists and patrons alike, with some master and contemporary pieces now selling for millions here and abroad. But the judgment of Filipino art and of its significance has lagged way behind commercial practice, with few scholars and critics taking the time and trouble to tell us what we are looking at, beyond vases full of flowers and mouths agape in an interminable scream.

Writer Alice Guillermo seeks to fill that void by reminding her fellow viewers and critics of art that there is more than one way of finding and seeing value in art work, beyond looking for pictorial or decorative pleasure.

In her new book, Image to Meaning: Essays on Philippine Art, Guillermo, who teaches in the Art Studies department of the University of the Philippines, argues that meaning resides in the artist’s engagement with his or her milieu. She asks us to appreciate art as a form of argumentation in an ongoing debate about issues of great national importance, quite often beyond immediate and specific concerns, but having to do with identity, justice, humanity, and transcendence, or one’s relationship to the divine, the eternal, and the nameless.

Guillermo lays out her thesis right at the beginning. “Art,” she says, “has a vital role in society, and …it can be a catalyst for social change…” But she quickly clarifies that “My political view of art has always been interlinked… with a deeply hedonistic feeling for art. Thus, art criticism for me is not purely discursive, but has always been infused with the pleasure of discovering the serendipitous insights or the calm felicities of contemplation, quickened on occasion by the frisson esthetique.”

Ang Kiukok and Olmedo

This balance, and Guillermo’s own vivid and stylish prose, elevate the book from similar and stodgier treatises on the social function of art. Witness, for example, the very last paragraph of the book: “Up in the sky unfolds the battle royale of Good and Evil, and the Grand Metaphors of Horse and Crow, but on the earth below is the daily war of attrition, of sharply contending interests, the big and the small, the powerful and the weak and disinherited.”

The essays are divided along several headings: “Dynamics of History,” “In Pursuit of Identity,” “Celebration of Nature,” “Modernism and Beyond,” and “Visions of the Spirit.” The headings suggest a certain breadth of thought and belief beyond the immediately political.

She sees complementation in the roles of both artist and viewer: “The artist should not be a mere technician, but expresses a view of life in his work. On the other hand, the viewer/critic is also not a mere connoisseur, confined to the analysis of the elements, techniques, and processes.”

It’s a form of cheating, but all you need to do is to read Guillermo’s concluding paragraphs to get a sense of what she has been looking for. Typical is her assessment of Ang Kiukok: “In sum, Ang Kiukok believes that art is a vital part of life, and should be linked to human struggles. His paintings of high impact originate from the desire to open the eyes of the viewing public, to see the truth about the universal human condition, although it is also for the latter to seek deeper into the forces that construct the world and the very categories of our thinking.”

She sees this even in an artist like the late Onib Olmedo, who eschewed the specific for the universal, but whose best work, to Guillermo, nevertheless drew upon his immediate social environment.

But lest we think that all her essays and all her talents deal only with history and ideology writ large, Guillermo wields her own fine paintbrush as a portraitist in the wonderful little piece on Federico Aguilar Alcuaz. She takes great pains to present the reader with the artist’s life and lifelong body of work before rendering judgment – a caring thoroughness that those of us who write but do not pain can only wish for from literary critics more generous with their opinion than their scholarship.

What About Popular Artists?

As contentious as some of Guillermo’s points may be, there’s no doubt that hers is a valuable contribution to the sad state of art criticism in the country today, which has too often been left to publicists and merchandisers. Among all the arts, with the exception of commercial film, painting and sculpture are the only ones involving any real money, often putting what passes for criticism in the service of marketing and public relations.

It is an important book because, for both artists and students of art, it provides a broad historical horizon in which one can locate oneself and one’s work. It establishes clear standards of what makes good and important art – according, of course, to Alice Guillermo and like-minded critics. But without judgments like this, we would have no intellectual debate, and without intellectual debate, the Philippine art scene will be no more than a marketplace.

Surprisingly, Guillermo completely ignores such important if popular artists as Malang and Manuel Baldemor, whose dominance in the local art scene demands, if not deserves, more critical attention, no matter if they do not come up to Guillermo’s standards. One wishes that, perhaps in her next volume, Guillermo would address herself to such popular artists, and make an even more valuable contribution to the education of the Filipino art lover and buyer.

Source: Villanueva, Migs. Newsbreak Sept. 16, 2002 Reading Meaning Into Art.

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