Art must have no room for limitations. It’s non-negotiable. As writer and father of two brilliant visual artists, I understand that. I understand, too, that images possess power – the power to seize the mind, steamrolling its husky tendencies to see and interpret a picture more than it should.
Images themselves provide the shades and strokes which allow for acceptable “limitations,” given the specific stories these images tell, and the context for which these stories must be understood. Any other creepy correspondences between the image and the mind that move past the context for which they’ve been created can be safely seen as a mirage – something that’s there, but not really there.
I opened this little can of worms because in the age of memes and viral photos, images play a versatile role in shaping a worldview. And it all begins from the specific angle of a picture from which we derive a perspective. The problem with these perspectives is that they’re not always accurate.
In politically-charged climes as our own, what with the elections taxiing up the bend, visuals can take on rather capricious forms. Such images get in the way of providing a clearer picture of what is in front of us.
Art as political lie
Let me give you an example. The conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand E. Marcos and former first lady Imelda had this rather eerie fondness for really crappy, bargain-basement “art,” often depicting themselves as “royalty.” When I say royal, I mean those odd portraits where the first couple posed as either characters of medieval fables or Philippine lore, like Malakas and Maganda.
The Malakas and Maganda portraiture tells a self-made origin story where the first couple modeled as the first man and first woman of local lore. This puts them in a rather flustering position of being our own version of Adam and Eve. I get it. The dictator wanted to be thought of as strong, and the first lady beautiful. But representing the Filipino’s principal bloodline, as the fable suggests, is quite unsettling.
One other portrait is the Marcos family dressed to the nines in pristine white threads, all looking like feudal sovereigns – rich, powerful, untouchables. This rouses people’s romanticized idea of kings and queens, princes and princesses, of noble knights and their heroic exploits. What most people forget is that kings, emperors, and tsars, for the most part, enslave their subjects, if they do not rape the land and people of their dignity.
The Marcoses’ attempt at glit and glam in their portraits lasted long enough for Filipinos, who are mostly accepting of royals, to suspect something was off. Marcos’ decision to leave for the United States before the storming of the Palace in February 1986 literally saved their lives. The nightmare which awaited him there, if he chose to face the angry crowd, would’ve put the bloody fate of the Romanovs to shame.
Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s “Ina ng Bayan” spiel took on “motherly” forms outside the term’s customary meaning. Maternal and paternal terms used politically suggest “founding” status – as in America’s “Founding Fathers,” for example – not protective care. Thanks to social media netizens who saw through the disguise, the “Ina ng Bayan” spiel took on a rather ominous turn soon enough.
We all wear masks at one point in our lives, but none so tricky and sly as President Rodrigo Duterte’s political “burlesque” – posing as the country’s symbol of the poor complete with signature slippers, kulambo (mosquito net), and simple meals eaten with hands. While the image itself bears some striking resemblance to the simplicity of poor families depicted in some of our films, we know there is more to being poor than the standard claims of movie scripts or propaganda.
But make no mistake: it’s as powerful an image as anything that can be crafted, enough that Duterte could get away with topping popularity surveys. The old fox knows his propaganda and takes advantage of our limitations in ways we can only dream of exposing. If we’re not careful, what with all the buck and din of the coming elections, Duterte might just be able to get away with murder.
Marcos Jr. as the “tiger” and Sara Duterte the “eagle” – memes that went viral during the early days of the campaign trail – didn’t quite latch on, though. It was more an attempt at tragedy than victory, given that both creatures are not only carnivores, they are also predators. Funny, though: they seem to have ended up as fitting tributes to a Uniteam whose idea of the allegories of integrity couldn’t even cross the line of political debates. Vermin as symbolism would’ve been apt.
We need humans, not demigods
I’m sure the Vice President has nothing to do with it, but it disturbs me that Leni Robredo is depicted in some images as a powerful fairy queen possessed of magical powers, or some supernatural being whose dreamlike charms can save us from the rut we are in. Enviable as this may seem in terms of how artists summoned their talents to represent their beloved candidate, it reveals our partiality for heroes instead of leaders, demigods instead of public servants.
Isn’t this country already gagging from lime-lit superstardoms? The fame and notoriety of superstars? No, we don’t need magic or enchantment to solve the many-sided problems this benighted nation is facing.
What we need is a human being – no different from you and me – but possessed of more than sufficient mettle and intelligence, vision and empathy, to understand what we are going through, one who will do whatever it takes to turn this country right side up.
Romancing our dire condition to fit our fantasies is well and good – if you’re writing a fictional tale or a graphic fantasy novel. However, as all storytellers know, even fantasies must serve the truth, not the other way around.
When our imagination takes us to worlds far beyond our ability to discern what is real and what is not, it becomes a problem. We lose sight of the here and now – the scent of blood in our streets, and the reek of corruption in the halls of power.
We begin to believe our candidate’s – worse, our own – miserable, poorly-clad fictions, even when the truth is staring us in the face. – Rappler.com
Joel Pablo Salud is the author of several books of political nonfiction. He currently saddles his pen as senior desk editor of Rappler.