Penman for Monday, July 3, 2017
I WAS going to write about something else this week, but it’s impossible to avoid the elephant in the room, Ferdinand Cacnio’s sculpture “UPLift,” which has already stirred the biggest art controversy of the year on social media. That it’s happening almost literally on our front yard in UP Diliman makes it even more imperative for me to say something, as people have been asking me to do—given that, with “Vice President for Public Affairs” as my official day job, I’m supposed to speak for UP on matters of public interest, and you can’t think of something more public than sculpture.
That’s also exactly why I have to preface whatever I’ll say here with the disclaimer that I’m writing and speaking today as Butch Dalisay the arts columnist rather than Dr. Jose Dalisay Jr. the university spokesman, if you can separate the two.
With that out of the way, let’s lay out some basic facts. Sometime ago, the UP Class of 1985 Council—a UP alumni group—initiated a project to install the Cacnio sculpture in front of the UP Theater as its donation to inspire “honor and excellence” in the UP community. Smaller versions of the statue were sold to help finance the project. The sculpture was completed and installed, and when the public saw the figure of the nude, golden lady levitating in the air, held up magically only by her hair, their reactions ranged from delight and wonderment to curiosity and agitation—and, sadly, suggestions of plagiarism.
Word began to spread online that the Cacnio piece too closely resembled the Dutch artist Elisabet Bea Stienstra’s 2001 sculpture “Virgins of Apeldoorn”—a charge that Cacnio stoutly denied; he had never, he said, seen the Stienstra work. Soon, as images of other levitating figures in global sculpture emerged, a lively and impassioned discussion erupted over the possibility of plagiarism and the even larger issue of the work’s representation of its subject.
So, what do I think?
First, plagiarism: the similarities may seem obvious, but then so many things in life and art are similar, whether by nature or by design, or even lurking in a kind of universal subconscious. The basic forms we encounter in everyday life—the human face and body, four-wheeled vehicles, trees, birds—are after all pretty much the same. (While we’re at it, just count the number of statues of naked men with arms outstretched that you can find online, from ancient Greece to Africa.) Most portraits follow the same format, even the same pose, but no two faces will ever truly be the same.
When two art pieces are so strikingly alike, it’s almost pointless to state the obvious—that one is a “copy” of the other. Rather, it’s much more fruitful to observe and study the nuances that separate the two. When you come to think of it, art is much more about differences than similarities. And let’s not forget that we live in an age of parody and homage, of memes that recycle the same fundamental image, with incremental changes.
As the painter Imelda Cajipe Endaya pointed out, however, worthier of discussion than plagiarism is the politics of representation: does the piece truly elevate women, or does it—being naked and supine—merely repeat what too many (and often male) artists have already said about women? (This reminds me how, in 1989, an anonymous group of women artists calling themselves the “Guerrilla Girls” plastered New York with posters asking, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” They were responding to a 1984 MOMA show that had only 13 women out of a total of 169 artists.)
With all due respect to the artist whom I’ve never met, my own sense—and here I go with my street-level appreciation of the work—is that it was in a way too passively traditional, that it missed an opportunity to highlight aspects of the female body and psyche other than its idealization.
I know how annoying it is for artists to hear comments like this, but criticism comes with the territory, even if I firmly believe the artist’s freedom of expression to be paramount, indeed near-absolute. It’s tempting and natural for viewers to wonder how the same idea might be worked by another artist—say, Agnes Arellano or Julie Lluch (or the American M. L. Snowden). That kind of speculation, while moot, is also part of our education.
As I told the TV journalist who interviewed me as UP VP about the controversy (and this is as official a statement as I can make), “The work in question was donated and accepted in good faith. Matters of artistic judgment and intellectual provenance are probably best resolved by artists themselves, by courts of law, and perhaps ultimately by the court of public opinion.”
No matter how “UPLift” appeals to us (or not), we should thank its creator for making this discussion possible, because very rarely does art capture the public imagination, as this work has. It’s certainly been worth a semester’s classes in Art Appreciation.
Our responses to art are conditioned by our experience, our preferences, and our projections—in a sense, by what we expect to get out of the work or what want it to be.