Penman No. 270: Precedents for Presidents

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Penman for Monday, September 25, 2017

 

It’ll only be around for a few days more, but painter Rock Drilon’s latest exhibit at Galleria Duemila on Loring Street in Pasay City is worth looking into, if only to see how a master abstractionist is inspired by the idea and the experience of home. Titled “Homecoming: Works from Dumangas,” the show is the culmination of the past five years that he’s been staying at the Drilons’ ancestral home in Dumangas, Iloilo, after decades of living and working in the big city up north. He’d originally returned to his roots just to help out his aging mother, but the pull of the province proved too strong, and Rock found himself staying on for good.

This is the 61-year-old’s 50th-plus show, and if you’ve followed his career you’ll see familiar figures in his latest work—the loopy lines and amoeba-like shapes—suffused with color, predominantly pastel but pockmarked with black, like life itself. Of course, the wonder of—and, for many, the problem with—abstract expressionism is that a work can seem to mean anything and everything that the viewer brings to the picture.

Drilon cites Chabet, Dubuffet, and Basquiat among his major influences, aside from his mentor Joya, and it helps to appreciate their art as a whole to see a pattern among the patterns. One manifesto seeking to explain the school famously defined it as “violently opposed to common sense,” and you can see that in Drilon’s creations, whose subjects defy categorization but provoke intense examination. No soul-comforting churches, no sunsets, no ricefields here, only squiggles that could be both microbes and galaxies, as minute or as massive as our imaginations will make them. “Homecoming” is on until September 30.

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AN INVESTITURE, we’re told, is a “formal ceremony conferring the authority and symbols of high office, held during the new president’s first year in office,” and is a high point in the life of every university. Aside from the annual graduation, few opportunities exist for shows of pomp and circumstance—where the professors and administrators parade in full academic regalia—in universities like UP where egalitarianism is religion and simplicity of dress and manner are seen to complement sharpness of mind.

We had one at the University of the Philippines last Wednesday, in honor of our new president Atty. Danilo “Danicon” L. Concepcion, UP’s 21st, and it occurred to me that in all my 33 years in UP, I had somehow never been to one, although it’s taken place every six years in UP’s modern history. As one of his VPs, I had the honor of marching onstage, and so had a very special view of things.

The experience led me to dig into UP’s history of investitures, where I discovered more than few interesting factoids.

Our very first president, for example, wasn’t only a foreigner—an American—but also a clergyman, an Episcopalian pastor. His name was Dr. Murray Bartlett, and his investiture was held on December 20, 1911—three years after UP opened. About 2,000 students, teachers, and guests trooped to Padre Faura for the afternoon ceremony where—against the expectations of many—Bartlett argued in his speech for a “University for Filipinos” that would not merely copy US universities.

UP’s third president (after the Filipino jurist Ignacio Villamor) was again an American, and a Methodist minister—Guy Potter Benton—and his investiture in December 1921 was memorable not only for its lavish budget of P10,000 and a star-studded guest list that included Governor General Leonard Wood, Senate President Manuel Quezon, and Speaker Sergio Osmeña, but because of a feature that would never be seen again: the UP faculty wore all-white togas, which someone had thought more appropriate for the tropics. (It would be voted out the next year.)

Benton’s illustrious successor, Rafael Palma, had an investiture described as “austere,” but the word clearly did not apply to Don Rafael’s prolific pen, whose 8,000-word speech I clocked at about an hour and a half.

Flashing forward, Onofre D. Corpuz seemed to have spoken in the spirit of martial law when, in 1975, he scorned the notion of the university as a “battleground of ideas,” calling it “a romantic stereotype” which the people could ill afford to support with their taxes.

Edgardo J. Angara’s investiture in 1982 was besieged by a hostile crowd declaiming a litany of complaints—he had dared to start reforming UP’s ancient academic programs, and he would later reconfigure UP into constituent universities—but if anything, his raucous investiture would prove that you can get someone dead wrong, because Angara would go on to become one of UP’s best chief executives.

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These precedents were on my mind last week as I sat in my chair behind our new president, who made an impassioned appeal for the university’s constituents to find common ground, favoring “consensus over conflict, civility over calumny, and collaboration over confrontation.” UP, he said, should be “a clearing—a safe, free, and congenial space” within which its people could undertake “cutting-edge research, timely policy studies, exciting new exhibits and productions, and provocative art and literature.” (You can find the full text of his speech on www.up.edu.ph.)

We all cheered him on and wished him well—governing UP can sometimes be as difficult as governing the archipelago—and as we marched down the stage I felt more than a witness to history unfolding.

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Penman No. 258: A Boost for Art Education

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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.

Penman No. 238: A Little Carillon Music

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Penman for Monday, February 13, 2017

 

 

IT’S BEEN a bit nippy these past few mornings on the campus of UP Diliman, where I’ve not only taught for the past 33 years but where we’ve also lived for almost 14 years now, in a house once occupied by one of the most beloved icons of the English department, the late Prof. Concepcion “Ching” Dadufalza. I inherited the bungalow on Juan Luna Street when Miss Dadufalza moved out to be with her sister. She could have stayed in it forever as Professor Emeritus—one of the loftiest distinctions a lifelong teacher could aspire for—but she merited better care and companionship in her old age, as only her family could give her. In a sense, of course, the university was Ching Dadufalza’s family—and they would come and visit her in Juan Luna, stalwart wards like the poet Jimmy Abad, her eternal student and virtual son.

Campus housing is one of those few perks of university life that professors look forward to, given the crippling rentals in the metropolis and, just as insufferable, the traffic you have to plow through to get to your classroom in time. Beng and I actually owned a small house in San Mateo (which we’ve since sold to raise funds for a newer car), but the commuting crushed us, so we stayed for many years in a succession of apartments closer to UP until the opportunity arose to live on campus.

That opportunity came when I was appointed Vice President for Public Affairs by President Francisco “Dodong” Nemenzo in 2003. I was chair of the English department then and still eager to tickle young minds in the two classes I taught. I felt no great urge to take on a heavier administrative burden—the position came with the kind of prestige that only my UP-alumna mother could boast about to her Tuesday-Circle friends, and very little otherwise by way of extra emoluments. I would end up sending the office’s pockmarked Corona to the body shop for a spray-over at my own expense, figuring that the university’s chief spokesman and lobbyist deserved a veneer of respectability.

But being on call to the President and the office 24/7 was also a good argument to live on campus, and when Miss Dadufalza moved out of Juan Luna, her former home was assigned to me. As far as I was concerned, that privilege of campus housing was my true salary for serving as VP. Whether the larger bungalows for senior faculty or the walk-ups for young instructors, it’s prized not only because it’s affordable and hard to get, but also because… well, let me explain.

Ching’s house had a gazebo put up in the yard for her by her loving students, and when the giant mango trees overhead were fruiting, you could hear mangoes drop on the roof in soft thuds, and pick up the fruits and eat them after a quick wash.

By day, on the job, I would dash off across the city in the old Toyota for meetings with cranky politicians and even crankier students over the proposed new UP Charter. But I came home to sweet mangoes, fragrant papayas, and birdsong in the branches, to the enveloping coolness, the cadena de amor, and the carillon music that had defined Diliman for me since I began roaming the campus as a boy in the early ‘60s, hoping to someday study there. I had never imagined becoming a professor, much less a poobah, and now here I was in a starched barong, defending and propagating the legacy of Rafael Palma and Salvador P. Lopez.

But I began by saying how cool it’s been in Diliman this February. Beng and I have been taking five-kilometer walks every other day to savor the air. Two years short of retirement, I could stop here at the Sunken Garden and just enjoy the dewy scenery.

One afternoon last week, I embarrassed myself in my American Lit class by talking about that scenery, and then uncharacteristically weeping. I told my students that I had just been asked to serve, once again, as VP for Public Affairs, and I wanted to say no because I knew I was going to be sorry when the workload hit and when the problems started streaming in, but I couldn’t, because it was UP asking, and because my mother would be happy, and because UP had given me, quite literally, a good home. So here I am again, brushing my shoes and counting my barongs, a little carillon music tinkling between my ears.

 

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And now let me put in a word for a friend, the writer and translator Chichi Lizot who, as it turns out, had quite a lively and a lovely youth. She wrote me to recall that “My seven-year stint as a flight attendant was perhaps the most daring thing I had ever done. I joined Philippine Airlines when it was still a small family, in 1974. I was barely eighteen!  I naturally think of the late Chona Kasten, epitome of elegance, grace, and class. I flew during her time when many of us regarded her as very much like the head mistress of a revered finishing school that was not easy to get into.”

Chichi wants her fellow PAL alumni to know that on Saturday, February 18, a reunion of over 600 PAL ex-personnel from all departments and indeed from all over the world will take place at the Fiesta Pavilion of the Manila Hotel. Latin Night is sponsored by the Association of Former Flight Attendants of Philippine Airlines for the benefit of Tahanan ni Maria, a home for the aged in Carmona, Cavite. Naty Crame Rogers, 94 years old, who began flying in 1946, will show her juniors how to salsa during this Latin-inspired evening of dinner, dance, a fashion show of PAL uniforms through the years, a raffle of great prizes, and many more.

For tickets, please call AFFAP Chairman Christie Altura at 0917-8478117 or AFFAP President Avelyn Jahns at 0917-8199018.

 

Penman No. 214: Soon, Another Presidential Race

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Penman for Monday, August 29, 2016

 

 

NO, NOT for President of the Republic of the Philippines, but, for some Filipinos, an almost equally significant post—that of President of the University of the Philippines System, who will be chosen by the UP Board of Regents in a meeting in mid-November. Standing at the forefront of Philippine higher education, UP—recognized by its new Charter as “the national university”—very often sets the standards and the tone for other Philippine universities, especially State-funded ones, to follow. Thus, the position is much more than honorific or ceremonial; the UP President is expected to be a visionary, an executive, a manager, a motivator, a mentor, a democrat, a disciplinarian, a nationalist, and an internationalist all at once.

UP Presidents have been known to surprise their constituencies. The very first one, Dr. Murray Simpson Bartlett, was an American and, of all things, a Protestant pastor—and yet he envisaged the new institution as a “University for Filipinos.”

Edgardo J. Angara was a successful lawyer and a budding politician, having served as a delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention, when he was asked by outgoing UP President Onofre D. Corpuz to consider taking over in 1981. The reluctant nominee and non-academic turned out to be one of UP’s best presidents, restructuring the university’s organization, boosting faculty salaries, and reforming its curricula.

Francisco Nemenzo was a professed Marxist who modernized the university’s facilities and mindset, revitalizing UP’s core General Education program, and making better commercial use of UP’s vast landholdings. Emerlinda R. Roman broke barriers as UP’s first woman president, after having served twice as Chancellor of UP Diliman. A management expert, she was able to harness considerable resources on the crest of UP’s centennial in 2008 and to employ those to the UP community’s benefit.

Incumbent President Alfredo E. Pascual’s ascendancy to the presidency came as a surprise to nearly everyone—perhaps including Pascual himself—when the BOR elected him in 2010 on the first ballot, reportedly by a one-vote margin (by tradition, the BOR members agree on a unanimous vote after the fact). A Chemistry and MBA graduate who later spent many years in the private sector and with the Asian Development Bank, Pascual was seen to be an outsider and went off to a rocky start. But he proved to be a quick study, and has worked hard to raise UP’s international profile and its connections, to raise performance incentives for UP’s professors and researchers, and to expand the UP System’s reach.

Their successor, according to search guidelines recently released by the BOR, must meet the following basic standards: (1) hold a master’s degree, with a doctorate preferred; (2) have substantial academic experience at the tertiary level; (3) be able to serve the full term of six years before reaching the age of 70; and (4) have no conviction for administrative and criminal offenses.

Additionally, and just as importantly, they should demonstrate (1) a commitment to academic excellence and national development; (2) the political will and the skills to defend and promote academic freedom and the University’s institutional autonomy; (3) a commitment to democratic governance in the University based on collegiality, representation, accountability, transparency, and active participation of constituents; and (4) a commitment to preserve the public and secular character of the University. (There are more requirements, which you can check out in the guidelines here: http://www.up.edu.ph/call-for-nominations-for-the-next-u-p-president/.)

This early, several prominent academics and personalities have been heard or rumored to be interested in running for the presidency. They include UP Law Dean and popular radio host Danilo Concepcion; former UP Diliman Chancellor and physicist Caesar Saloma; current UP Diliman Chancellor, anthropologist, and newspaper columnist Michael Tan; current Vice President for Academic Affairs and marine biologist Gisela Concepcion; and former Senator and now Representative and UP Law alumna Pia Cayetano. The names of former Vice President for Academic Affairs and now National Historical Commission chief Maris Diokno and of former CSSP Dean Cynthia Bautista have also been mentioned. (My information, mind you, is based on coffeeshop chatter, and could very well be denied by any of these eminent persons tomorrow.)

In practical terms, and despite and away from all the spirited rhetoric we can expect of the campaign process, it will all come down to a matter of securing six votes among the 11 members of the BOR. The composition of that board is provided for by the new UP Charter, RA 9500 (which, as Dodong Nemenzo’s Vice President for Public Affairs, I among others had the privilege of lobbying for in the Senate before it passed under Emer Roman in 2008, perhaps the government’s greatest gift to UP on its centennial).

The BOR comprises the chairperson of the Commission on Higher Education, who also serves as the BOR’s chair; the incumbent UP President, who serves as co-chair; the chairs of the Senate and House committees on education; the president of the UP Alumni Association; the elected representatives of the UP faculty, staff, and student sectors; and three regents appointed at large by the President of the Philippines (the BOR will recommend a shortlist of persons chosen for their academic and professional accomplishments—at least two of them have to be UP alumni—but the President can technically make other selections). Effectively, therefore—considering that the two representatives from the Senate and the House will likely be Malacañang allies—the Philippine President can exercise tremendous influence in selecting the UP President.

Before the new Charter defined an odd-numbered BOR, a tie was possible. In 2004, the then 12-person BOR was deadlocked 6-6 between Emer Roman and the Palace candidate, then Ambassador to the UK Edgardo Espiritu. The tie was broken 7-5 in a second vote a week later.

It’s a critical choice for both the Palace and the University because UP’s history is replete with instances when the two presidents have clashed bitterly, with sometimes brutal consequences. Rafael Palma fought Manuel L. Quezon over political issues, including free speech at UP, as a result of which the government cut UP’s budget and denied Palma a gratuity upon his retirement in 1933 after a decade of service. (Upon Palma’s death in 1939, however, Quezon praised him as “a patriot, a scholar, and one of the noblest characters that ever lived,” and even had Palma’s interment delayed so he could personally attend.) Bienvenido Gonzalez and Elpidio Quirino also warred over academic freedom. Salvador Lopez stood up to his fraternity brother Ferdinand Marcos in defense of civil liberties.

Bearing these presidents and precedents in mind, if you have a candidate whom you feel should lead UP onward, take note that nominations will close on September 23; the BOR election will be held November 15; and the incoming UP President will take office on February 10, 2017.

I myself will be retiring from full-time teaching in three years and so will see only half of the next President’s term through, but whoever gets chosen should have an impact less on the outgoing profs like me than on the incoming freshmen of Batch 2017. Admittedly, UP could always do better at basketball, but choosing the next coach of the UP System could prove just as important to the shaping of the Filipino mind as the one that 16 million of us made just a few months ago.

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Penman No. 163: The Gentler Path

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Penman for Monday, August 24, 2015

FOR THE first time in something like 20 years, I’m teaching two undergraduate classes this semester. I usually teach one graduate and one undergrad class, but thanks to what I’m taking as a glitch in the registration process, my graduate fiction writing class—which is usually oversubscribed—had zero enrollees this term, forcing its cancellation and my reassignment to a course usually reserved for young instructors, English 11 or “Literature and Society.”

I should make it clear that I’ve always insisted on teaching at least one undergrad class every semester, and have done so unfailingly since I returned from my own graduate studies abroad in 1991. The benefits go both ways—young students get to learn from more experienced professors, and senior profs get to know how young people think. With four years of active teaching left before retirement (it’s hard to believe, but I’m getting there), these encounters with some of the country’s brightest young minds will only become more precious, and as with every class I take on, I can only hope that, many years from now, my former students will remember something useful that they picked up from me.

I haven’t taught English 11 in ages, so it was with some trepidation that I entered the classroom on our first day a couple of weeks ago, under UP’s new academic calendar. Students don’t realize this, but professors can be just as full of anxiety at the start of the semester as they are. As I scan the roomful of faces, I’m already wondering who will likely give me problems and who will make it worth the effort of preparing for every day’s lesson as if I myself were taking an exam. Thankfully, most of these mutual apprehensions soon retreat as I reassure my students that I know what I’m talking about—and that I won’t scream at them if they don’t—and as I begin to understand what exactly I’m working with, which is always a welcome challenge.

This semester, I was glad to discover that my English 11 class of about 30 students was composed of mainly science and engineering majors. You’d think that teaching the humanities to them would pose problems, but I see it as a unique opportunity to lead smart people on an adventure they might have missed out on otherwise. Of course, UP’s General Education program makes sure that our graduates acquire a balanced outlook on life, so my students didn’t really have any choice, but I see my job as making them see Literature as much less an imposed subject than a welcome relief from everything else—in other words, fun. When you disguise labor as discovery, and emphasize incentives over penalties, the students—and you yourself—can feel more relaxed.

English 11 is what used to be English 3 in my time—an introduction to literature—and while some teachers see this as a chance to pile on the heavy stuff like The Brothers Karamazov (and I can understand why), I prefer to take the gentler path to literary enlightenment, and begin with things the students know or can apprehend. That way you can lead them to stranger and more intriguing discoveries about the way language works to convey human experience.

Last week, for example, one of the first poems we took up in class was “Southbound on the Freeway,” a poem published in 1963 by the American poet May Swenson. We could’ve done something like T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” but unless you train lay people to look at poetry a certain way—to see it as a puzzle or a riddle to be solved, for example—it’s often very hard for them to get a handle on what some poets do on a high and abstracted level of language and idea, much like the way Picasso’s departure into Cubism (think of his women-figures with their eyes looking this way and their noses pointing that way) can be better appreciated if you first consider what goes into a traditional portrait like the Mona Lisa.

“Southbound on the Freeway” reads like a rather simple and even funny poem, in which alien visitors on a spaceship look down at the Earth, and see creatures “made of metal and glass…. They have four eyes. / The two in the back are red. / Sometimes you can see a 5-eyed / one, his red eye turning / on the top of his head.” It doesn’t take much for the student to see that the aliens, hovering above a freeway, have concluded that the cars themselves are Earthlings, and even that some cars—like the “5-eyed” police car—are more special than others.

In literature, this is a familiar device we call “defamiliarization,” by which poets and other artists take something we see everyday and present it to us in fresh and unexpected ways, revealing facets and insights we never really thought about before. The Swenson poem seems like all it does is show us how perspective can change our perception of things, but it goes beyond that eye-trick and asks a very intriguing question at the end: “Those soft shapes, / shadowy inside / the hard bodies—are they / their guts or their brains?”

At this point, I ask the class, what’s this poem really about? Is it just about aliens and humans, or about cars on the road? Inevitably, someone spits out the magic word: technology! So what is it about technology that’s so important, I press on, and what does it have to do with our lives? Why, everything, the class exclaims in a chorus—we’d die without our cell phones and iPads!

We go into a brief and engaging discussion about what exactly technology means, and whether it has benefited human society—or not. We talk about mechanization, automation, better and easier ways of doing things, products that were invented to improve human life, and inventions that did the opposite. We talk about armaments, and about Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and how it actually helped to encourage more slavery in the American South. I tell them that at some point, later in the semester, I’ll talk to them some more about the legend of Dr. Faust and how it led to the stereotype of the mad scientist, all the way to Dr. Strangelove, Lex Luthor, and Doc Ock. I can see that the class is listening, and I’m happy.

I ask them what the real question is that the Swenson poem is posing, and they get it. It’s been a good day in school for Literature and Society.