Thursday, November 08, 2007

THE NATIONAL PRESS CLUB'S CLUBBING OF FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

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

6 comments:

Redster said...

Hi John. Perhaps I can interest you to write about another mural that was launched previously, under a project called "Reclaiming public space, Recapturing memory." We did this with TutoK and the beauty of the project is the focus and intent of the murals -- (1) though the murals were painted to commemorate the execution of Macario Sakay (revolutionary hero) and the assasination of Lean Alejandro, the project's challenge was to convey the two not as larger than life heroes, which disempowers people; (2) the paintings should not be militant, but subversive...

I think it was job well done, and the best thing of all is that they're indeed public -- one is now on permanent display at the Ospital ng Makati in Pembo (not the cultural petting zoos of upscale Makati) and the other is displayed at the San Juan City Hall. You can take a peek at http://www.constantinofoundation.org

Check it out when you have time. But thanks for writing about the NPC murals in your inimitable way. Warm regards.

red

stuart-santiago said...

hi john, posted this on my blog today:

cheche & censorship

what does it say about philippine journalism when one of its top icons, a multi-awarded veteran broadcast journalist, producer, educator, and talkshow host (also maria ressa’s idol) says that art for art’s sake is secondary to the will of the man with the purse, and that artists gives up freedom of expression when commissioned to do a work of art.

or something to that effect. cheche lazaro’s scripted wrap-up in the last 15 (10?) seconds of media in focus last thursday was so rushed, i may have heard wrong, i hope i heard wrong, because how could she be so okay about censorship?

says john silva, senior consultant to the national museum:

“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.”

says raul pangalanan, dean of the u.p. college of law:

“The National Press Club (NPC) apparently thinks that just because it paid for the mural, it has the power to alter it as it wishes. The NPC must realize that ownership of the thing does not mean ownership of the copyright. Granting that the work was commissioned by the NPC for P910,000 and assuming that there was no other agreement, ownership of the thing itself would belong to the NPC but copyright remains with the artists. The ownership of the NPC is limited to the physical thing, which it may sell like any other property — but only the artists, as copyright owners, have the right to transform their art work. The owner may only keep the work ‘as is.’ Transforming it is an exclusive ‘economic right’ of the artist.

“In addition, the artist has ‘moral rights’ to maintain the integrity of his work and oppose ‘any distortion, mutilation or other modification of … his work … prejudicial to his honor or reputation.’ Indeed, moral rights may not be waived entirely, especially if the effect is ‘to use the name of the author with respect to a work he did not create.’ The NPC may be liable for damages, criminal penalties and fines for the infringement of their intellectual property rights.”

says luis teodoro, former dean of the u.p. college of mass communication:

“The NPC leadership was not being ‘apolitical.’ It was being crudely, brazenly political – first, when it asked press freedom’s worst foe since Ferdinand Marcos to inaugurate the mural, and second, when it censored it. What’s even worse, what the NPC did was not to expunge ‘leftist’ elements from the mural, but to deface it so as to hide the truth.

“Truth-telling is the fundamental value and responsibility of journalism. But here’s the NPC suppressing such truths as that Jonas Burgos was indeed abducted by military agents, and that the anti-terrorism law, deliberately misnamed the Human Security Act, has grim implications for press freedom. These are neither leftist nor rightist claims, but facts – the very stuff of which competent practice and ethical journalism are made. Has the NPC leadership even heard of either? Anyone engaged in the suppression of facts has no business calling himself or herself a journalist, the appropriate word being ‘hack’ – preferably with the words ‘bought and paid for’ attached to it. ‘Quack’ also applies.”

ah, i wish we had writers like john silva, raul pangalangan, and luis teodoro hosting tv public affairs talkshows, thinkers who as a matter of course go beyond he-said-she- said, truly probe into issues, and dare take a stand, no matter how anti-establishment.

but it ain’t gonna happen. they’re not pretty enough, or popular enough, or quacks enough.

DJB Rizalist said...

Mixing dead and living people in an "artwork" takes a particularly deft and sensitive artist to pull off. Too easy to get a bizarro effect, as neo angono does here by bringing in a whole troop of them, actually six all from the PDI newspaper. I heard NPC is trying to sell the mural to PDI, since it is really a paean to them. As for the Bird Monster in a Cage, I thought that was actually a big improvement over a representation of a manifesto by an obscure international journalists organization. I think what happened here is that the "artists" left their client in a lurch one day before unveilling of their obra maestro. Even if they do have "moral rights" over their work, they also have "moral obligations" to make their customer happy. They did not do that. Instead they are outraged that NPC is unhappy at their million peso purchase because the Message just isn't what they want in their restaurant. It's a giant game of Rapo, John.

stevie said...

Two comments lang.

First, I believe there is really a gray area here, that's why its a perennial topic for debate. If I own a painting or a work of art, can I do whatever I want with it? The debate has no answers since it will boil down to personal beliefs and values.

Second, there is really no true press freedom as we believe it to be. PR hacks, advertisers, editorial judgement all play a part on what gets printed and aired and how.

Good thing for blogs.

Irene said...

As a journalist major in UST, we were advised by our professors NOT TO JOIN the NPC. Even then, they were already one of the worst things to hit this country's press industry.

Mondays with Intelligent Life said...

Take it from me. That NPC is NOTHING but a bunch of "bums" who used to drink and do not know how to write a single complete sentence!