Last year, seven museums in Manila participated in a somewhat surreal re-enactment of a tribute to the master. It was a revisit to the corpus of Fernando Amorsolo, gentle stalwart of the Philippine academic tradition in painting after Juan Luna, reigning from the early part of the twentieth century through to the 1950s. Amorsolo was not only the first National Artist to be declared by Imelda Marcos in 1972, the year her husband Ferdinand proclaimed Martial Law; he was actually the origin of the honour, a fulsome attempt to salvage his conservative reputation at a time when modernism was strongly poised to critique the social norm and possibly the regime that was inclined to be simultaneously authoritarian and developmentalist in the name of national identity. Amorsolo's depiction of the Philippine picturesque, particularly its lucent sunlight, was a vital element in the discourse of being Filipino and its attendant visuality.
To look back at this costly project may be instructive in many ways. Firstly, it affirms the lingering belief that discourse on Philippine culture is still significantly framed and funded by the instincts of the elite; it does not help, of course, that this elite has endowed the more solvent museums. Secondly, institutions like museums in the Philippines do not find themselves in a competitive position to initiate large-scale attempts at revisions, such as a revaluation of Amorsolo and his art, and so are practically unable to offer alternative discourses and complicate existing canons. Thirdly, the current interest in the market for Asian contemporary art may have seduced those with links to the upper class to invest in the art of the moment. This is a considerable shift of focus from masters like Amorsolo to the artists of the day. This is confirmed by auction sales figures that validate even hitherto un-validated careers in the local art world. It is for this reason that it might be useful to explore the link between the seven-museum Amorsolo enterprise and an Amorsolo collateral at the Manila Contemporary gallery, partly owned by the polytropic Valentine Willie who maintains outlets all over Southeast Asia and whose social network is exceptionally extensive. He contributed to the initial meetings for what was eventually called His Art, Our Heart: The Amorsolo Retrospective, the overkill homage to an ancestor worshipped to death. The last Amorsolo event of significant magnitude was Lupang Hinirang (Beloved Land) in 1989 at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, and the only full-length book on Amorsolo was authored by the critic Alfredo Roces in 1975.
We are not drawing a straight line between the institutional exhibitions and the market, between Amorsolo's idylls and the valleys of retail. We are simply gesturing towards entanglements. Firstly, the heirs of Amorsolo are entrenched in the trade of authentication; one of the daughters, in fact, gives the impression that she is the sole arbiter of this operation, an insufferable stance that is extremely difficult to accept considering that she has absolutely no credentials in art history. She may have an opinion or two about the works of her father, but it is just an opinion among myriad, in the same way that others, from scholars to speculators, would have their opinions in the brisk business of pictures and pretensions in the Philippines. Secondly, the exhibition at the Manila Contemporary may lead us to assume that Amorsolo's signature is a market cipher that is ultimately appropriated by so-called "responses" to him. Curated by an otherwise sane artist, this undertaking was nearly a catastrophe, with works by his students at the state university mingling with those of seminal conceptualists and social realists, without rhyme, reason, or common sense. It was supposed to be a confrontation between Amorsolo's sense of province and what the gallery terms the "post-modern world," a rather lame and, in the last instance, conceptually bereft proposition.
This betrayal of the curatorial trust, a privilege and platform given only to a few, is evident as well in the grand Amorsolo venture. There was supposed to be a curatorial committee chaired by a former Marcos technocrat who is himself a collector and a self-styled connoisseur but, ultimately, decisions were left to the curators of the museums. As with the Manila Contemporary show, the result here was also nearly a catastrophe, with old habits rearing their ugly heads, inept (if not pseudo) themes like "war" and "contemporaries" ruling the day, and dispositions towards the pastoral finding equivalent expressions in curatorial modes that bordered on parody and kitsch. Surely this was frustrating, given that so much capital was invested into the stint, complete with a gala night fit for the lifestyle magazines and glamour photographers. It became increasingly apparent as the said affair unravelled that the discourse of Amorsolo inveterately belongs to an equally irremediable elite: while the well heeled dined and bantered, they were entertained by performers trying their darn best to look like peasants. This was supposed to be a paean to the Filipino, to the resilience of the race, to the values of tradition under the aegis of a class society of a semi-feudal, rent-seeking character. We can imagine an attentive observer sensing coarseness amid all this finery.
If one were interested in reckoning the dynamics between institutions and the market in the Philippines, then the Amorsolo carnival should serve as a curious case study. It was a mixed blessing: many pieces saw the light of a public viewing but suspect pieces also crawled out of the woodwork and were legitimated by virtue of being exhibited; museums worked together but curators hardly discussed theoretical issues in the spirit of being interdisciplinary; money flowed but, inevitably, ideas petered out as the elitist penchant for faux heritage, spurious identity, and ersatz gentility took over.
More troublesome, of course, was the implication of the "contemporary" in this relay of appropriations by way of a flawed curatorial concept that set up a rather sordid bazaar. To begin with, there were already missed opportunities in the curation of Amorsolo's oeuvre, putatively that it certainly was not a retrospective. As if this failure wasn’t enough, contemporary artists were rounded up for an exhibition that lacked logic and even a sound ethical basis with respect to a watershed personage like Amorsolo and an aesthetic premise with regard to contemporary art and its standards of form, quality, and meaning. After all the hard work in cobbling together standards for curatorial practice in the country, from the trans-regional Sungdu-an (Confluence) initiative to the exhibitions of Raymundo Albano, Marian Pastor Roces, and Joselina Cruz, we just come to this?
This exercise should serve as a cautionary tale of how art history, museology, political economy, curatorial practice, and the market shape "contemporary" art, investing it with context, significance, and value. We can spin this in many ways. First, the cooperation of academe and the museums validates Amorsolo's auspice, renewing his presence in art history and his liquidity in the market. Second, connoisseurship still seems to be the dominant method of this validation, a kind of formalism that is reduced to petit bourgeois, if not nouveau riche, taste and affectation. Third, the market catches up with this validation by relocating Amorsolo within contemporary art and exploiting the purchase of contemporary curation within a trans-national and expanded gallery network by way of an entity like Manila Contemporary and the new warehouse-turned-gallery spaces in the main financial district in Manila. Such contemporary "look" and "feel" therefore tap a vein in Amorsolo and coordinate or co-locate the interests of the elite, collectors, curators, and artists both novice and mid-career. They are all drawn into this vortex by a scheme of an unarticulated though very high level of reflexivity, and without the requisite criticality mediating the convergence. This could be partly explained by the frail curatorial history in the Philippines, with the locus of practice mainly in the institutions with a custodial and tressorial orientation. If not within this framework, it is on the watch of artist-curators who extend their artificial influence into the curatorial field, curating their peers or likeminded practitioners and inevitably creating coteries, if not cults, and organising exhibitions with limited range and a disturbing in-house ambience. This incestuous custom can be seen in the lamentable display at Manila Contemporary, which looks like an episode from the artist-run space playbook, and in some galleries that, perhaps with good intentions, conscript artists to display and hang works with nary a curatorial concern. This is not so much to advance the cause of too much curatorial engineering and ensconce the equally contrived power of the curator even further as to make a plea for accountability among those who dare to curate to get as good as they give. And also this: for the maturity of a corps of independent curators capable of surmounting the prejudices of gate-keeping in all its guises and from all quarters, from "prophets to profiteers."
Moreover, that Amorsolo as genius and Amorsolo as afterlife are attenuated, and in all probability exhausted, also prompts us to probe the evolving manoeuvres of the gallery system as it captures both species of art in its ecology. That a lineage is traced from Amorsolo to the succeeding generation is an achievement of this savvy mobility that may meet no impediment because the art world has a weak structure of museums and curators, critics and historians, and journalists who can write beyond the phraseology of publicity. In the face of underdeveloped art institutions, a highly politicised cultural bureaucracy that is the instrument of state propaganda, the absence of discourse in the dubious media, there can never be a practice of reciprocal critique in these parts. All endeavours are bound to be serial, shortsighted, indulgent, and in many cases, maladroit. How does one explain that no serious critique of the Amorsolo spectacle was ever written and no seminar convened? Without a critical intelligence and vision among intellectuals in the public sphere of art who will create conditions for a responsive community to step up to the plate, it will be the elite who will set the agenda of Philippine art and culture, with experts merely co-opted as informants and artists as the proletariat in the assembly line of art production, or better still, pavers of farm-to-market roads at a time when Philippine contemporary art is scaling its peak in the commerce.
And it is all but tragic because Amorsolo worked hard every day of his life to draw images, without much regard for aggrandisement. In spite of this diligence that knew no fatigue and thus spawned formula, he did not die a rich man. His diaries are artefacts of melancholy: humble entries of quotidian expenses, transportation and food, clothes and other effects all dutifully recorded in quaint Spanish and Tagalog as if every cent counted. Very telling remains of a life off which posterity continues to live like wanton.
(Click here for full description of the project. The author curated one of the exhibitions at the National Art Gallery.)
Patrick D. Flores is Professor of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines and Adjunct Curator at the National Art Gallery of the Philippines. He was one of the curators of 'Under Construction: New Dimensions in Asian Art' in 2000 and the Gwangju Biennale in 2008. He was a Visiting Fellow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1999 and an Asian Public Intellectuals Fellow in 2004.
- Sun, 1 Mar 2009