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Can ‘monsters’ be worthy artists?

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Jul 03, 2023 5:00 am Updated Jul 03, 2023 9:21 am

A surprise post from an FB friend finally shared a question I had long nursed: Must everyone form a quick opinion on anything and everything brought up in social media?

Well, both boon and bane have been brought on by the internet. Among these are the courage attending virtual anonymity and the false convenience of mob mentality. I’m grateful for the caution that comes with age, like knowing that stepping into the bathroom always comes with the risk of slippage.

Kneejerk opinions are the slippery tiles that compound gravity’s perils. Emotional responses tempt one to betray easy-peasy mindsets. Take the Titan submersible’s implosion. The popular schadenfreude that greeted the disaster only showed that for some people, billionaires simply can’t deserve empathy.

Excitemen—and controversy—over exhibition of Juan Luna’s newly resurfaced “Hymen, oh Hyménnée.”

Parallel to this have been the reactions, spiritedly divided, to the excitement over the Ayala Museum exhibit of Juan Luna’s “Hymen, oh Hyménnée,” also known as “Boda Romana,” on loan from the collection of Jaime Ponce de Leon.

Someone quickly remind everyone that the artist had avoided conviction from a Paris court for the killing of his wife and her mother. Shared was the mother-in-law’s lengthy letter of desperation, written on the eve of the double-homicide. Surprisingly, it seemed to have only opened the fresh eyes of many socmed followers to what has been common knowledge among cognoscenti.

Ensued a furious call for a boycott. I couldn’t help but wonder if such a boycott should extend to the permanent exhibit of Juan Luna’s more famous “Spoliarium” at the National Museum. Or would the artist’s detractors be placated with the addition of a note placed beside the painting that would identify the artist as having committed parricide nearly a couple of centuries ago? 

An infuriated detractor called the “Hymen” painting accursed, done by a “madman” who was even guilty of “poor aesthetics,” and urged the Ayala Museum to “refrain from further glorifying this godforsaken artwork… and ship it back to the nether regions where it came from.”

Again, should a similar injunction apply to the National Museum and the “Spoliarium”?


This brings us to further contentiousness about the worth of artists who have been revealed or reputed to be “monsters.” The list has lengthened in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and in the coattails of cancel culture.

Choices for condemnation as related to amatory abuses include film directors Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, and entertainers Michael Jackson and Jerry Lee Lewis. Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliance as a film director had long been negated by her support for Hitler.

Writer Jun Balde now asks: “Dapat ba o hindi dapat isali sa pagtasa ng isang obra ang ugali ng may likha ng obra? (Should an artist’s character be factored in when judging the merits of a work of art?)”

He cites William Sidney Porter who had embezzled bank funds, fled but was arrested and sent to jail, where he wrote stories under the pen name of O. Henry while turning alcoholic. Balde asks if the literature he produced should be taught to children. He also cites the lunacy suffered by Vincent Van Gogh that led to suicide. What about all his paintings that enjoy adulation?

His buddy Paul Gauguin made it a habit to contract venereal diseases while abusing women in the tropics. Earlier, there was Caravaggio, who inspired Baroque painting, but whose violent streak led to brawls and murder. We might as well add Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, whose licentious behavior was aggravated by frequent instances of violence. Another glorified writer, Yukio Mishima, can be said to be the picture boy of machismo in extremis and fatal self-violence. Some would even add Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson as variants of the species. And to avoid confining the specimens to a gender, of course there was the tragic poet Sylvia Plath.

Without offering any judgment, Balde concludes: “Sa totoo, napatay ni Luna ang kaniyang asawa at biyenan. Dapat ba o hindi dapat tangkilikin ang mga obra ni Juan Luna? Paano ba dapat i-evaluate ang isang work of art?”

Respondents chimed in. Copper Sturgeon: “The art has nothing to do with the rest. Many artists have disability of a sort, seeing the world as they show you.” A certain Dreamrose: “The artwork overshadows the artist.” Videographer and art mentor Ernesto Enrique: “Ang morals ng isang artist/writer ay walang kinalaman sa kaniyang mga obra. Parang sinasabi mo na ring di dapat maging NA si Nora Aunor dahil siya ay gumamit ng pinagbabawal na gamot. Absurd ang tanong.”

One even suggested that Rizal could be questioned as a hero, since he was a womanizer. I like what poet Merlie Alunan wrote: “The work has a life of its own independent of the artist, although it was the artist who gave life to it. The artist will pay for his crimes and sins, his art will not redeem him or spare him from retribution. And it will remain itself, speaking its truth to us. We will stand in awe and amazement at what it represents as itself. Perhaps we will wonder how such beauty can be created by such a depraved human being, and that is how ART redeems all of us.”

In Manila’s airport in 1970, Pope Paul VI was almost assassinated. The reports turned bizarre, inclusive of a claim that it was then President Marcos who had foiled the attempt with a karate chop. The assailant was Bolivian painter Benjamin Mendoza, who was said to be mentally disturbed despite some Filipino artists’ depositions that he “seemed incapable of such a violent act,” as Jerome Gomez would write for Esquire Philippines.

Copper Sturgeon: “The art has nothing to do with the rest. Many artists have disability of a sort, seeing the world as they show you.”

“He would tell his arresting officers that same morning that he was only trying to save mankind from a Pope who, according to him, was ‘spreading superstition.’” He spent over three years in Muntinlupa before being deported to Bolivia in 1974.

The vagabond expat had painted actress Pilar Pilapil whom he idolized. Then Senator Ramon Mitra acknowledged owning a painting by Mendoza, “of white horses, their backs turned, jumping past a barbed wire fence, while knives stuck out from their bloodied bodies.” Artist-writer Alfredo Roces is quoted as saying that the fellow may have been “touched in the head, because he liked to do semi-surrealist works, too.”

Gomez concludes his exhaustive report with a rhetorical question that most of us might ponder when we allow our empathy, let alone appreciation of art, to straddle the gulfs of time. He asks: “Could Mendoza have, that fateful morning at the airport, finally exorcised all his inner demons? By moving past the banality and restrictions of the canvas and spectacularly lunging into the realm of real life, was he able at last to set himself free?”

A portrait sketch of Pilar Pilapil by Mendoza is kept at the Lopez Memorial Museum Collection. Should it also be sent back to the nether world?