It has often been said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” that is, the things we see around us are interpreted differently from viewer to viewer. But what about the flip-side? Is the “profane” just as subjective as the “pleasing”?
In one of my travels, I found myself tagging along with my sister who was meeting her one-time Arts History professor Mr. Ybañez in Madrid. Now being a numbers guy, art was never one of my strong suits, in contrast to my kid sister who’s an Arts graduate. But thinking this was going to be a rare chance to expand my horizons, I begged to be the third-wheel in their art-tripping escapade.
The first stop was the Museo del Prado, one of the world’s largest art museums. Gazing at literally thousands of the world’s most treasured art pieces and listening to my two art-aficionado companions rattle trivia after trivia about the pieces we encountered was educational, to say the least. Turning a corner into another hall, we heard snickering from a group of teenage tourists who were calling their other friends to come see a painting that had piqued their interests. Curiosity got the better of me and I glanced at the artwork they were giggling at.
And there it was. A huge painting showing what looks like the Virgin Mary baring one of her breast, giving it a deft squeeze, and squirting a long stream of breast milk straight into the open mouth of a kneeling monk.
Kinky, I thought.
Some sort of Catholic breast-fetish perhaps? Surely this must be some sort of poe. The very thought of showing Catholicism’s most venerated symbol of virginity and purity actually flashing her breast and feeding a grown man her own breast milk? Oh, the Freudian implications! The very idea, mixing the sacred with the sexual, soon had me joining in the barely suppressed mirth of the other viewers.
Then my killjoy sister gave me a subtle elbow jab while giving me that “don’t you dare embarrass me in front of my prof” look. Mr. Ybañez then graciously explained that the painting was one of Alonzo Cano’s best-known work, “The Vision of St. Bernard”. He further explained that the Latin inscription above the Virgin’s head “Monstra te esse matrem” meant “Show yourself to be a mother”. The painting was the artist’s depiction of a rather fanciful myth attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux where the saint was deep in prayer to the Virgin Mary. In response to his devotions, the statue miraculously came alive, pressed her bosom, and fed the devout saint her own milk to symbolize her divine role of motherhood over the faithful.
Now this tale, as well as the art depicting it, is rich in symbolism. If one were to interpret the painting or even the legend behind it literally, it would most certainly be fraught with sexual connotations. A shallow interpretation of this artwork would deem it “bastos” or even heretical. Thus the critical need to look beyond first impressions and try to figure out what the artist is trying to tell us. If there’s one thing I learned from my know-it-all sister and her erudite professor that day was that “art” is the process of relaying abstract ideas through symbolism. Juxtaposing symbolisms of the carnal with the spiritual does not automatically make something “blasphemous”. Compared to analyzing a mathematical formula, which is as straightforward as it gets, art is never interpreted the same way by different viewers.
Interpretation is part of the whole art experience. The artist creates the art… but that’s only half of the process. How the viewer perceives it is “creating meaning” on its own. We apply our own world-views, biases, and personal symbology on the artwork, creating an experience unique to each spectator. (plus, it helps if someone more knowledgeable gives you the cliff notes version of its back-story and history for us noobs).
One then would be led to wonder how this painting would fare if instead of being housed in the hallowed halls of one of the world’s top art museums, it was instead displayed here in the Philippines. Would it suffer the way Mideo Cruz’s works did?
Would the Catholic bishops likewise raise hell over its supposed “blasphemous” imagery?
Would Pro-Life’s Eric Manalang likewise attempt to file charges over its public display?
Would lawyer Jo Imbong likewise call it an obscenity for “offending religious belief”?
Would religious extremist vandals also deface it… and have the CBCP actually blame the victim for the incident (perhaps, in the same way some bigots blame the victims of rape for “bringing it upon themselves” because of the way they dress)?
If art of this nature suffers so in the hands of our self-appointed local “art critics”, then maybe it’s a good thing they’re safely kept half a world away, far from the overzealous pinoy vandals and lawsuit-happy pinoy moral-police.
If this is the level of shallowness we can muster for art appreciation, then is it any wonder we are left with the mundane and banal which passes as “art”? While the rest of the world thrives in diversity and maturity in the appreciation of art, we are left with recycling what is safe and conventional lest someone be “offended” by what he sees.