Art Conversations: The Concept and Question of “Beauty” and “Sublime”

As revealed in the discussions on Poleteismo, Filipino people are still looking for beauty in art. Numerous articles are looking, not just for beauty but also for the ennoblement of the soul. It almost appears that the Filipino aesthetic valuation and theory remain still with the “great masters” echoed by F. Sionil Jose. In another article by Isagani Cruz, he states that, “Instead of ennobling some Catholics, “Poleteismo” made them commit one of the deadly sins — anger. It made them receive Holy Communion with hatred in their hearts — the sin of sacrilege. It made them judge and therefore made them liable to be judged. It made them throw the first stone even if — let us not be hypocritical — no human beings except Jesus and His mother Mary were born without sin. There is provoking and there is provoking. The kind of provoking that Mideo Cruz did was not justified by the creative piece that he did. Critics always say that an artist should “earn” the effect of his or her work. That means that there should be a deliberate, successful effort by the artist to achieve whatever it is she or he wants to achieve. No art piece can be conceived simply on the spur of the moment. Every art piece that aspires to be art is always the product of long, careful, profound hard work. Therefore, based on the reception of the work, “Poleteismo” flunked the test of good art. It may be art, but it is bad art. It may be art, but it is not Art” (online). This kind of discourse becomes the popular and the norm for the Filipinos, which ironically, echoes some of the earliest aesthetic discourses. Plotinus, in his Ennead One: Sixth Tractate, echoes the same sentiment, “Such should be the experience of beauty, amazement, pleasant consternation, yearning, ardour, and excitement mixed with pleasure” (50). Such belief is also reflected by Francis Hutcheson in An Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, “Our sense of beauty seems designed to give us positive pleasure, but not positive pain or disgust” (97). These are early philosophies of aesthetics that are subscribed to by the popular writers and are therefore what most Filipinos are exposed to.

Looking back, one of the earliest theories on beauty is that of the Greeks. Their understanding of beauty focuses on the “1. wonderful and supreme; 2. as beyond all measures and distinctions, related to un-limit; 3. as pertaining to all things; 4. as pertaining to the gods and to nature and natural things as well as to human beings and their works, including works of art; 5. as pertaining to finite things, shapes, colors, sounds, thoughts, customs, characters, and laws; and 6. as inseparable from goodness and excellence (arete)” (Ross in Oxford 238). There appears to be a limited understanding of beauty as well as the canons of art in the aesthetic understanding of the Philippines. It is widely believed that there is a standard of beauty and a specific canon that should be followed for art to be considered as art. There is, not only a canon for beauty but also a canon on how art should be perceived. Silvers writes, “Canonical objects accomplish this not by modeling how other works should look (each should be unique) but instead by modeling how we should look at other works; that is, the eye or ear or sensibility of the prospective connoisseur is cultivated by exposure to art that the admiration of previous generations of connoisseurs has marked as canonical (Oxford 335). This kind of perspective was perhaps part of what inspired F. Sionil Jose in citing his experiences of seeing the works of great masters from great museums that make him an expert on judging the work as something which is not art. The discernment from a photograph is enough for him to determine that he can actually do the work and therefore declare that it is not art. Again, as this is a word by a National Artist, it pertains to a canonical valuation as well as a canonical perspective on beauty.

On judging beauty, David Hume’s Standard of Taste should be looked into. He says that, “It is well-known, that in all questions, submitted to the understanding, prejudice is destructive of sound judgement, and perverts all operations of the intellectual faculties: It no less contrary to good taste; nor  has it less influence to corrupt the sentiment of beauty (Hume 494). Ironically, Hume also points out that not everyone can properly judge artworks as they may be lacking in their taste. He further states that, “Thus, though the principles of taste be universal, and nearly if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgement on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty. The organs of internal sensation are seldom so perfect as to allow the general principles their full play, and produce a feeling correspondent to those principles” (494). The belief that there are standards to be followed and that not everyone is capable of having or discerning that standard is prevalent among the Filipino popular writers. For F. Sionil Jose and the others, it is the great masters of the art world that are the standards of beauty and greatness of artworks. Again, as F. Sionil Jose writes, “First, what is art? I go by this simple definition: Being an artist myself although I work with words not with the brush — if I can do it, it is not art. If I were to do the Jesus Christ commentary in oil, I would have used imagination, craftsmanship, and most important — originality. None of these basic qualities are in the CCP exhibit” (online). There is a canon of the medium–the oil, and not only that, but also the canon of looking at and examining the medium. Though there is a welcoming online discourse on the matter, it is still those with a larger voice that is given the larger space to express their views, as in the case of columnists and editors; more than the ordinary netizen or even the academics and theoreticians.

There is also the pervading belief that art should be pleasurable because of its beauty. Perhaps it is where aesthetic education of the Filipinos today came from and eventually got stuck there. Friedrich Von Schiller in his essay On the Aesthetic Education of Man, he states that, “For whole centuries thinkers and artists will do their best to submerge truth and beauty in the depths of a degraded humanity; it is they themselves who are drowned there, while truth and beauty, with their own indestructible vitality struggle triumphantly to the surface” (Schiller 580). The Cultural Center of the Philippines is still stuck in “The true, the good and the beautiful” that the aesthetic education of Filipinos became stunted in its growth. The Imeldification that struck CCP from its founding in 1969 until the present day was never truly replaced. Risqué, challenging and confrontational artworks that do not fit “the true, the good and the beautiful” suffers. The publicity received from the Imelda visit and her comments on KKK (Katotohanan, Kabutihan at Kagandahan) struck a nerve, not just on the artworld but on the Filipino public. Once again, this woman was listened to, especially as newspapers, such as Inquirer and Sun credits her for the closing of the exhibition. This discourse on beauty is traumatized and afraid of disgust and merely looks into pleasure. These valuation is where the aesthetic value of the Filipinos, even the institutions got trapped in. It is a good philosophy to a certain extent, but far too narrow and limited. It may apply more to the 19th century Filipino oil paintings but hardly to conceptual and popular art that numerous artists are exploring in the present time. Contemporary context of art will hardly apply to the concept of “the true, the good and the beautiful.”

In the discourse of beauty and the sublime, the sublime was hardly looked into within the popular discourse. Mideo Cruz’s Poleteismo would fit more into the theory and aesthetics of the sublime, rather than the concept of beauty that was insisted upon by the popular media. Guy Sircello in Is a Theory of the Sublime Possible? poses the possibilities of the sublime discourse that might also be useful in the discourse of Poleteismo. He first distinguishes the tripartite aspect on the issue of the sublime, “first, there are experiences of the sublime or alternatively, sublime experiences. Second, there is what I call the sublime discourse. And third, there is talk about the sublime (Sircello 541). In this context, he poses some assumptions, “The first assumption is that only sublime experience properly motivates sublime discourse and therefore that only sublime experience is the proper and ultimate subject matter of talk about the sublime” and “My second assumption is that sublime experience can and does occur in a large variety of personal, cultural, social and historical contexts, all such contexts also inevitably involving experience that is not specifically sublime” (542). He formulated a theme on the sublime which he refers to as an “epistemological transcendence” (542) that is supposed to validate a sublime discourse that can somewhat be quantified without falling into the trap of universalism. Despite this attempt, there are still various topics that needs further exploration, “(1) what it might mean, (2) whether it is indeed presented in sublime experiences, (3) what, if so, there might be about such experience that could present an epistemological transcendence of that form, and finally, (4) whether epistemological transcendence as so interpreted is warrantable or believable are tasks–among many other tasks–at least for more talk about the sublime, if not for a theory of the sublime. This exploration of the subliminal discourse will be much useful in Mideo Cruz’s work, particularly in the experience, discourse and talk that the artwork and the surrounding controversies inspired.

Part III of Art Conversations. I am working on this topic. I am posting it here, hoping for a response from those who wants to engage in this conversation.

Venus of Urbino by Titian


  1. nonoymanga Avatar

    Great Post, I like the back story. Thanks for sharing Nonoy Manga

    1. Portia Placino Avatar
      Portia Placino

      Thanks for reading it. And you’re welcome. Your site looks great as well. I wish I could draw Manga 🙂 I admire them though.

  2. Art Conversations: Ideas and Aesthetics of Modernism « Portia Placino Avatar
    Art Conversations: Ideas and Aesthetics of Modernism « Portia Placino

    […] IV of Art Conversations. See Part I, Part II, and Part III. Not to be reproduced by Rene Magritte, 1898-1967, Collection EFW James, […]

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