Shame and Fortune

Alice Sarmiento

MR Issue 5 FINAL PRINT FILE SINGLE BLEED CROP MARKS X4 FINAL EDIT35 620x533

Illustration by Gabrielle La Montagne B

It’s easy to pit the reified art world with celebrity culture. For #Homework, a section in collaboration with Planting Rice, Alice Sarmiento asks, is the border between them more porous than we think?

Distinctions, Diplomacy, and an Art World Fuelled by Celebrity Skin

In “Hear, Here, For the Beer,” visual artist Lena Cobangbang mentions “[t]he arrival of JLC as collector and being in almost every art opening, consequently making going to art openings as [sic] a cool/glam celebrity/ lifestyle thing.” Published in Planting Rice’s column #Homework in issue 4 of The Manila Review, Cobangbang gives her account under the subtitle “Absurdly Good Things,” with JLC referring to Star Cinema heartthrob John Lloyd Cruz. Cobangbang characterizes this arrival as “a positive indicator of an expanding market/audience”.

Affirming Cobangbang’s take on the “absurdly good,” Cruz appeared shortly after on the cover of theFebruary 2014 issue of Esquire magazine, his back rendered in oil by Nona Garcia (working with photographer M.M. Yu). The attention Cruz’s cover/Garcia’s painting has drawn so far from both the arts and the entertainment sectors only highlights commonly held distinctions, a veritable gulf in some cases between what is typically seen on a magazine rack and what is expected to hang in a gallery.

On its own—or without accounting for the role of Esquire as a signifier for the ideal male lifestyle—Garcia’s painting of JLC raises issues common to contemporary art, such as the preservation of anonymity among collectors and the phenomenon of the celebrity artist. Esquire’s use of one of Star Cinema’s biggest names to promote culture and the arts steers Garcia’s portrayal of Cruz into even more sensitive territory: one that recognizes the need for “pop stars, movie stars and supermodels to fuel the machine and make the art world feel like it’s crossing over into the real world,” as described by Adam Lindemann of the New York Observer.

The distinction Lindemann makes between the “real” and the “art” world can be disastrous in what David Celdran calls the “entertainment-obsessed culture” of the Philippines. As early as 2001, Celdran pointed out that “celebrities have embedded themselves so deeply in our collective consciousness that many feel, if not swear, of [sic] a personal relationship with them. After all, it is not unusual for fans to speak of their screen idols as if they were family and close friends.” 

So where does JLC: TNL of Star Cinema end, and JLC: Collector begin? Or rather, how will JLC’s presence in different milieus alter his existing fanbase—which currently cuts across age, gender, and class—while potentially creating new ones?

These are questions that turn our attention to the absurdly good of which Cobangbang speaks, where a single image of a collector casts a new light on the trade routes between art and entertainment, illuminating how the two could work together to create a more democratic exchange. Using Lindemann’s binary of “real” vs “art,” a heartthrob like Cruz may bring Philippine contemporary art into the public consciousness—or at least closer to his audiences. The other way it could get better would be to actually break those distinctions down, recognizing just how much “real” and “art” have in common after industrialization, which according to Isabelle Graw in High Price: Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, is “exemplified by the observation that the art world, like the fashion and film industries, is now governed by corporate mergers and the celebrity principle.”

As with all good things however, there’s the bad or the plain absurd, as described by Carpio in her rundown of Cruz’s collection of works by Romeo Lee, Pow Martinez, and Kiko Escora—pieces which may not only shatter JLC’s image as poster boy for Paracetamol, but also represent the crossover of “art” into “real”, with Cruz as tastemaker.

Market/Audience

Hear-here is where Cobangbang’s curious use of a slash (“/”) between market and audience gets highlighted. It should be obvious that Cruz’s Esquire cover was not the first attempt at using celebrities to fuel the engine of cultural development. Shortly before arts month, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) announced the appointment of 10 famous faces to endorse February’s lineup of activities. Headlining the government agency’s initiative were talk show host Boy Abunda and singer Ogie Alcasid, actors Piolo Pascual, Jericho Rosales, and Dingdong Dantes, singer Sarah Geronimo, congresswoman/ballroom dancer Lucy Torres-Gomez, and beauty queens Shamcey Supsup and Venus Raj.

The selection immediately sparked outrage online, with Cobangbang herself among the noteworthy voices on social media. The NCCA responded with a statement that Abunda and company were “not icons, but ambassadors.” Commonly deployed for marketing, the term “ambassador” typically refers to endorsers with no links to any particular industry. While many are bloggers, stylists, and events specialists, the title and the actual job description can be summed up as providing a face or adding a “personal touch” to a brand’s otherwise abstract commercial identity; mixing political relations with big business and conflating the work of diplomacy with selling stuff.

These types of “ambassadors” attend product launches, lavish praise through their social networks, and appear in all forms of print and broadcast media. The general assumption is that there is a product to endorse, in which brands resort to the use of famous faces to increase their presence in the Filipino consciousness. In other words: marketing.

Carpio’s article, however, hints at a different kind of endorsement. After all, what kind of stuff is art? How is it consumed? What kind of economy does it create?

Soft Terms, Hard Stuff

The NCCA’s use of “ambassadors” only dilutes the nuances of attracting and developing audiences for the arts in favor of the relations between products and their consumers. Not only does it cynically assume that the most effective means of sparking Filipino interest or generating any kind of awareness is by foregrounding a famous face (or back), it also packages the arts as products that can be “pushed” the same way one might sell a pair of jeans, a condominium unit, or a car.

Clearly a musician and a dancer produce different forms of work, and one would think this is dead obvious to the NCCA. The same can be said for an architect and whatever the hell Dingdong Dantes was enlisted to promote (“Youth”? Okay, DD). Other complications come with the NCCA’s role as a public agency, thus making it accountable to the public not by pandering to masa appeal, but by (sorry to sound cliché here) serving the people. The best way to serve “the people,” though, would still be to render that term obsolete.

In the case of JLC’s Esquire cover story, Carpio shows a collector, rather than an endorser; these seem like negligible titles in this multi-hyphenated Filipino celebrity culture, yet one has the potential to contain multitudes as opposed to pushing a product. Viewing collections is an opportunity to recognize the particulars of each artist and to understand the context in which their work was created. By drawing attention to contemporary work, Cruz’s cover could shed light on distinctions in what artists make and do. Rather than looking at general and monolitihic ideas, such as “youth” or “culture,” collections allow us to peer beyond surfaces and see the harder stuff, recognizing that even abstract terms are made up of concrete objects. As absurd as it sounds, showing this different side to Cruz (or any celebrity, really) is a good thing if it creates subjectivity and diversity in the way we view ambassadors and icons, markets, and audiences, eventually allowing it to permeate the vocabulary promoted by agencies such as the NCCA.

After all, when pressed to describe his collecting habits, Cruz’s words can be paraphrased to “I know what I like.” And if collecting art is an individual pursuit, then what more when it comes to creating it?