The premature closing of the Kulo exhibition at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) has found its way into the world’s media not so much for its questionable content but for the fact that it was closed due to the intervention of the Philippine President.
The open sentence from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) website says it all “An art show featuring a poster of Jesus Christ with a wooden penis glued to his face was closed Tuesday after President Benigno Aquino intervened amid threats, vandalism and claims of blasphemy.” (Emphasis mine)
The outrage that flows from artist’s poking their tongues out at the religious establishment happens on a fairly regular basis. Last year a woman in Colorado attacked Enrique Chagoya’s "The Misadventures of Romantic Cannibals" with a crowbar because it depicted Jesus receiving oral sex. In 2005 we saw the furor that erupted over the publication of an unflattering series of cartoons depicting the the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph “Piss Christ” has been physically attacked with blunt and not so blunt instruments when exhibited in both France and Australia. But the head of a country stepping in, now, that is a first in quite some time and a cause for concern.
A group exhibition, Kulo, opened on June 17 and was scheduled to be on show until August 21. A week ago a TV crew did a story on the exhibition and in the best “if it bleeds, it leads” tradition focused on the naughty bits. The aforementioned poster of Jesus Christ with a wooden penis glued to his face and a second depiction of the Christian deity with a clown’s nose and the Disney rodent’s ears. They are two small parts of Mideo Cruz’s “Poleteismo” which translates as ‘many beliefs’ or ‘many deities’ and is a three-wall installation with a large variety of images.
Prior to the President’s call, the CCP had been staunchly defending the exhibition citing the country’s constitutional right to free speech as their rationale. The day following the presidential call the exhibition was closed. A statement justifying the closure said "With an increasing number of threats to persons and property... the board of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines has decided to close down the main gallery."
The President may not have said jump, although it is reported that he told the CCP staff “he opposed the artwork” sight unseen, as far as one can tell. The CCP’s timing suggests they have guessed how high.
As worrying as this censorship is, President Aquino’s interpretation of constitutional rights is a cause for greater concern. Whilst in general terms he is correct when he states “There is no freedom that is absolute” the freedom of speech has been constitutionally enshrined so that offensive statements can be made. It is a freedom that underpins the influential 19th Century liberal philosopher John Stuart Mills’ words “. . . there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it might be considered."
With the freedom of speech being amongst the first casualties in a totalitarian state and in the light of the Philippines’ recent history many with an attention span that extends past the next commercial break will be wondering if the leopard has indeed changed its spots.