A few weeks ago, I inadvertently sparked among my social media contacts (and their contacts) a heated discussion about art, politics, alliances and cultural institutions; hence this attempt at making sense of the timely prairie fire, after the suffocating smoke settled, finally vanished and blended with the dissonant aroma of noise-air pollution.
The wick: “ano ‘yang bringing back political theater, new protest poetry sa entablado? sinong huminto? kailan naging apolitical ang ahrt?” (What’s bringing back political theater, new protest poetry on stage? Who stopped? When has ahrt been apolitical?) Though far from the infernal flames of DDS-Dilawan troll war, firewood kept the thread ablaze for a few days, and I had to extinguish it and limit access; as of now, only those who chipped in comments and ideas regarding the new protest performance poetry shenanigans can reflect on their word choices and life decisions. As for me, no regrets so far.
Attaching no link and elaborating no further, I intended to simply poke fun at two things. For those unfamiliar with the happenings in the cultural fields of performance and poetry, these are: 1) Rodolfo Vera’s call in a December 2016 article to “bring back political theater”; and 2) Alfred Yuson and Gemino Abad’s recent anthology, BLOODLUST: Philippine Protest Poetry (From Marcos to Duterte) (2017), offshoot probably of the Kill List Chronicles initiated by disciples of new criticism. Some would have applauded the courage of the gatekeepers to join the ranks of people critical of the government, some would suspect this paradigm shift of sorts to something else. I lean toward the latter.
Like performance and poetry, humor can be an art form; thus, it is political—not universal, and relative to some extent because appreciation depends on how you think of what you know. Speaking for myself (and not for structures I am affiliated with), I, too, risk something (beyond being unfunny) by cracking a critical punchline. I intend to make people, including myself, think and evaluate the thoughts and evaluations of culture industry’s big shots, who tend to express blanket conclusions and grand statements of comprehensive political awakening. These gatekeepers somewhat seemingly claim that they sounded the wake-up call that shall be heeded by everyone in their respective fields, nationwide (take a look again at the title of the anthology).”
Someone suggested that political theater should be strengthened and not brought back, because it has neither died nor ceased in seizing informal spaces as stages, especially in the fringes of imperial Manila, the regions, the communities. Protest poetry has been in the streets, where it rightfully belongs. If the introduction of Bloodlust added details of its scope and delimitation (and review of related literature), and stated that it has been three decades since poets in the academe or a particular school of literature assembled in pages of protest, then there’s one less major problem. But their definition—and clarification of the “newness” of the anthology’s brand of protest poetry, and how this “new” differs with the presumed “old”—shall be in order.
I cannot think of any other “old” tradition of protest poetry that this new one tries to displace and somehow silence. But I leave the thinking up to the readers. Hint: also look at Bloodlust’s table of contents. Sooner or later, someone (including myself) might write an article about it, with more focus on the three decades that it tried to dismiss.
For starters, UP Press published Muog: Ang Naratibo ng Matagalang Digmang Bayan sa Pilipinas in 1998, introduced by Gelacio Guillermo. Jose Maria Sison tried to account revolutionary literature and art as far as the sixties until 2015. Despite Sison’s comprehensive and inclusive list that covered cultural activities in regions through decades, an initiative back in my sophomore years was not mentioned: Artists for the Removal of Gloria (ARREST Gloria!) that later became Artists’ Response to the Call for Social Change and Transformation (Artist’ ARREST); and there exists more undocumented efforts of protest through art and literature, which closely works with other sectors.
Having covered political theater’s resurrection and “new” protest poetry, let us focus on the latter half of the status message — the rhetorical question of who stopped and whether “ahrt” has ever been apolitical. These unfortunate times, I had to unpack details of a joke. For the uninitiated, I added the “h” for a more sushal sound that implies how high art’s selection of objects and subjects reeks of politics.
The decision of writers and artists to distance themselves from explicit politics (and zero in on navel-gazing following the assumption that bad times are over) is political, and so is the timing to take a stand and take a risk. Soul searching is fine (but wallow moderately), as it is a privilege that might strengthen the resolve for individuals from the middle to the higher levels of the socio-economic ladder, in order to respond to the basic questions that shall be asked: For whom? Against whom? Performance and poetry is inherently political. Silence during specific moments in history is a political decision. Those who stopped being critical of powers-that-be have personal and political reasons. All of us have interests to protect and to wager. Gatekeepers or cultural managers also do.
We know we cannot change cultural gatekeepers overnight, but this does not mean that we let them get away with practices we deem reactionary and feudal. We engage these literati and culturati with questions about their art, audience, practice, theory, but this does not mean that we do not welcome their contributions to a broader alliance against state fascism founded on bureaucrat capitalism, feudalism, and imperialism. Moreover, gatekeepers of culture have respective fiefdoms, which might house fellow travelers, who may later commit to emancipatory causes beyond the vision of the masters that could’ve stunted their professional growth; hesitant serfs and workers in cultural institutions have to be armed by tools not just for creative but also for critical work.
For now, we can settle and fight together against common enemies. We may have the same answer to the question “against whom?” but a different one with “for whom?’ They may fight for the restoration of another patron among the ruling classes. Or perhaps not. They might change for the better, as some of us had. All of us had (and still have) bad habits, attitudes and practices from entitled classes—either by nature if we trace our origins from such classes, or nurtured, i.e. acquired or learned. For now, some lords of cultural institutions might be tactical allies against more despotic landlords, compradors and imperialist lapdogs. Hence, the broadest alliance against the narrowest, strongest enemies. For now. We can deal with minor lords and their romanticized notions of artistic genius and delusions of grandeur, as we proceed; but we shall focus on expanding our directed efforts at life-threatening* forces that devastate the most vulnerable.
*I was tempted to add a Game of Thrones reference, but here it is anyway as a footnote to “Endnotes.” In the series, Danaerys Targaryen and Jon Snow, probably the ice and fire referred to in the title of G.R.R. Martin’s original work, opted to work with the Lannisters, to suspend the antagonism among ruling houses and focus on the Night King’s army of the dead. The two argues that if death rules over life, then there is no people to rule over. Needless to say, these are feudal milords and miladies in fantastic Westeros. But, perhaps we can learn a thing or two in terms of prioritizing efforts and managing our energies to deal with primary contradictions, without really abandoning secondary ones. History, even fictional ones, taught us that tools of the masters can be used.