By John L. Silva
(Imelda in front of the Cultural Center with drag queens in the background. Photo by Steve Tirona, Silver Lens Gallery Manila)
The recent Cultural Center of the Philippines’ costly extravaganza entitled Seven Arts, One Imelda, honoring former first lady Imelda Marcos’ founding of the Cultural Center was offensive and insensitive. It exacerbated the already wide division between the poor and the rich in this country.
Mrs. Marcos arrived in her signature terno with a bib of rubies and diamonds draped around her neck. She sat enthroned with her fawning sycophants through a variety of acts performed by artists she had sponsored in the past.
Since the evening’s program solely emphasized Mrs. Marcos’ role in arts patronage, the center’s fortieth birthday was quickly forgotten, and the artists’ performances eclipsed. Instead, Mrs. Marcos was given carte blanche, allowed to display ostentation as she is wont to do, which if memory serves us right, was an important factor in the overthrow of the Marcos government in 1986.
When the Cultural Center was inaugurated in 1969, there was criticism for its expensive construction, for cost overruns and kickbacks. It became a hated symbol of wasteful, conspicuous spending. Despite declarations then by Mrs. Marcos that the center would highlight the best of Filipino arts and culture, it was known more for hosting foreign performers with accompanying lavish celebrations that further rankled the general public. The center became a private auditorium for Mrs. Marcos, for catered affairs when necessary and its cultural fare dictated by whim rather than sobriety.
After the discredited Marcos regime was expelled, through time and more sensible management, the Cultural Center was exorcised and morphed into an accessible and well loved venue for all social classes. It started presenting more locally based productions and thoughtful performances. Shorn of its elitist stigma, the building’s architecture has even been given a second look and is now recognized as one of our finest cultural edifices.
It is appalling now to see a return of the obscene glitter and bling that was thought to have been dispensed with in the 1986 People Power revolution. In the not so distant past, overthrown despots faced the guillotine or firing squad. In more recent times, exile was preferred, and in the case of a magnanimous Philippines, there is the option of returning. But certain codes of conduct, unfortunately not spelled out, nonetheless do apply. That is, the returning vanquished party should have the decency to change their old ways, the ones that got them into trouble in the first place. Like flaunting their jewels and ill gotten wealth.
While the various court cases against Mrs. Marcos have yet to be resolved, many Filipinos have given the former first lady a wide berth due to the way she has lived and conducted her life. Cultural workers such as myself, have on occasion begrudgingly given her respect due to her having been a cultural proponent in the country, despite the controversy surrounding her political reign.
But when Mrs. Marcos wraps herself in jewels and struts her stuff, shoes and all, again, oblivious to a world that has roundly condemned her opprobrious behavior, she empties any remaining reservoir of civility and the abeyance of guilt that the patient Filipino people have afforded her. Her actions revive the memory of the reviled symbol the Cultural Center once was. We are indignant again by Mrs. Marcos who mocks the required social etiquette of living in a poor country.
The major initial funds of $3.5 million for the building of the Cultural Center were given by the United States, in effect, by American taxpayers. Subsequent donations came from Filipino taxpayers, along with donations from wealthy people in a Marcos fundraising practice that was once described by the opposition as “sophisticated extortion.” This tribute to Imelda program, with it’s invitation-only audience and the marked absence of the American ambassador, managed to overlook and not thank the real financial backers of the Cultural Center.
When it was built, the Cultural Center was criticized for its costly price tag. The Marcos loyalists then derided the criticism saying that a center for the arts shouldn’t take a low priority just because there were many more pressing needs. The masses, the argument went, shouldn’t be deprived of art, aesthetics and beauty. I for one would support that argument, if not for the fact that it is now 40 years later and the country is still poor. My tenuous support for the Cultural Center continues so long as people like Imelda Marcos aren’t invited by no less than its trustees to parade their vulgar jewels in people’s faces, particularly poor people. Such behavior has all the semblance of a Marie Antoinette-Let-Them-Eat-Cake attitude and ruins all chances for the country to unite and progress together.
For some of us, we’ve chalked up Mrs. Marcos’ behavior as silly antics, a sort of campy diversion, good for a few laughs and some eye-rolling. But it’s many years later, the humor has gotten quite stale and poverty still besets our country. There are many more Filipinos, in this even harder times, who see this needless pageantry and seethe in insult and collective anger. This sort of spectacle earns editorial ridicule here and abroad, plummets our national ratings in transparency and governance surveys which in turn drives away foreign investors and becomes a rallying point for the aggrieved in NPA and Al-Qaeda lairs. As a bastion for the best of our country’s culture and arts and a magnet for much needed tourism dollars, the Cultural Center has now done a great disservice to itself and to the country.
I take the Cultural Center to task for having foisted a shameful evening at the expense of the Filipino people. As recompense I would like to see a series of performances and exhibitions that were banned during the Marcos Regime. Let the public see what could not be seen nor heard nor read during Mrs. Marcos’ former cultural renaissance. Let the gala opening be dedicated not to one person but to the many who disappeared, were tortured or summarily killed during the Marcos regime. And then let the public decide which type of culture and the arts should receive accolade and support.
Let this anniversary and that kind of repugnant evening be the last of such shenanigans. Will profligacy and debasing our people be the sport for tomorrow or shall we renew the basic standards of decency and egalitarian virtues which a previous revolution had bestowed, albeit fleetingly, on our benighted country?