By John L. Silva
The National Press Club’s defacement and censorship of a commissioned mural in their club restaurant recalls to mind a celebrated incident involving the Mexican artist Diego Rivera and the Rockefeller Center.
In 1933, Rivera was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller to do a mural for the lobby of the RCA Building at New York’s Rockefeller Center. Rivera, a leftist, was well known for his grand murals replete with sinewy laborers in all forms of working poses. He had just finished a large scale mural with a similar theme for the Detroit Museum of Art sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, and despite the bias for proletarian vistas, the liberal, art loving Rockefellers decided their center should have a Rivera mural too.
Rivera though added a portrait of Lenin in the mural and this was over the top for Nelson Rockefeller. Despite his wife Abby’s lament, who collected Riveras, Rockefeller confronted the artist demanding he remove the offending Lenin. Rivera, already paid for the mural, refused, was summarily fired, and the mural destroyed. Rivera would have his revenge by recreating the same mural back in Mexico with Lenin in his glory and the patriarch John D. Rockefeller inserted elsewhere drinking martini at the expense of the toiling masses.
The National Press Club is in a similar imbroglio, having commissioned the Neo-Angono artist collective to do a mural with a press freedom theme. But the tack the Club undertook was downright abhorrent. They decided the mural was “leftist” and proceeded to have it altered without artists’ permission. They altered the mural to censor texts which included the current plight of a mother seeking an abducted son, defacing well-respected journalists, and painting over sections deemed offensive to the current Philippine president.
Paintings, particularly murals, if well done, have changed people, norms, and societies. We only need to recall Juan Luna’s Spoliarium which would influence a medical student named Jose Rizal to alter his career and write his devastating anti-colonial novels and become our national hero.
Paintings often reflect the times and if the Neo-Angono mural reflects the current state of Philippine affairs and the unpopularity of the current President, so be it. One would shudder to think if the National Press Club lived in the 19th century and found the Spoliarium to be offensive to the Spanish monarchy.
The cavalier and contemptible manner by which the National Press Club blithely desecrated a work of art is evidence enough that these so-called journalists haven’t a clue about freedom of expression. In a free society, contending thoughts, contending works of art are allowed and respected despite its inherent inclinations and viewpoints. The National Press Club’s actions has just put their profession to ridicule, painted themselves as cowards, and now insinuates itself as being in-the-pay of the powerful. Fellow journalists who abide in the freedom of expression should call for the immediate dismissal of the club officers.
Despite the destruction of his mural, Diego Rivera secured even more artistic commissions, gained world fame and lived financially comfortable to a ripe old age. Abby Rockefeller continued collecting Riveras, later donating them to the Rockefeller funded Museum of Modern Art for the public to see and appreciate. Rivera’s works are now revered and have a universal appeal transcending its leftist themes.
The Neo-Angono artists collective have the last laugh. In the current booming Southeast Asian art market, the moronic act by the National Press Club has just increased the appeal and selling cachet of current and future works of the Neo-Angono collective by ten fold. And, if it has universal appeal, a work of theirs could probably hang proudly in the National Museum, along with the Spoliarium.
John L. Silva is senior consultant to the National Museum of the Philippines