Does Art Have a National Identity?

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On March - 3 - 2011

I stumbled upon an… interesting article on the National Commission for Culture and the Arts website. It’s a short piece by poet/critic Leo Benesa on what makes Philippine Art “Filipino?” and it got me thinking. While, to his credit, Benesa doesn’t claim to have the answer to his initial question… I can’t help but wonder if it’s a proper question.

I don’t think that one can ascribe a nationality to a contemporary expression of an artistic style. While the style may have historical origins in a specific country, in my opinion the style itself is a tool. For example, “manga style” artwork has its origins in Japan, but I wouldn’t say that a Philippine artist employing that style is creating a work of Japanese art (or art of any particular nationality, which is my point). A style of art may have characteristics that make it more popular to, or representative of, a particular culture, but a work done in that style no more inherently “belongs” to said culture than “Life is Beautiful” is “American” because cinema was born in America.

I suppose this is why, when I refer to Philippine speculative fiction in general, the nationality I am referring to is that of the author, and not of the “style” of the work. There are generalizations that can be made because of the nationality of the author (in my interview with Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, I mentioned a few), so one may be able to arrive at shared characteristics through induction, but the presence of those characteristics in a work isn’t enough to ascribe a nationality to a work or style.

Of course, I could be wrong. I put a draft of this book up on my Facebook page and thought I’d run it by a few of my writer/reader friends, and received a wide variety of opinions. A small sampling of the issues touched upon in the comments: the definition of Asian American Literature, the difference made by the language used (and the use of Filipino as a national language when it’s basically modified Tagalog, the language of just one region), the effects of technology and globalization, nationalist literature, and the utility of ascribing nationality to art/style. I’m not posting the comments here verbatim because the note was a place for private back-and-forth, but anyone who wants to comment on this topic is welcome to do so here (even those who didn’t have access to the original note).

What I will do here is include a list of links to articles (roughly in chronological order, excluding the Benesa article already linked to above) which were referenced during the discussion, for those who want to explore the issue further (note that a few of these are specifically about Philippine SPECULATIVE Fiction, as opposed to Philippine Art in general):

  • (EDIT – a late addition, courtesy of Joanah Tinio Calingo): Filipino Comics and Everything in Between – Komik creator Taga-Ilog talks about the debate concerning the definition of Filipino Comics [2006]

Filipino comics are comics created primarily for Filipino consumption. Yes, I know this is a very utilitarian description of what Filipino comics are. I chose to describe it as such because I believe that comics are first and foremost, a product meant for entertainment. It is an art form, of course, and it’s a powerful medium to convey nationalistic ideals and socio-political concerns, but in the end, it is still a product meant for mass consumption.

“With subject matter being too constricting, one tries to find the Filipino identity through style: there is the baroque mentality, the love of color and the affinity for graceful and decorative lines. While these are principally agreed upon as qualities that have continually surfaced on paintings done by Filipino artists, one has to ask how applicable are they when dealing with different media? Nowadays, contemporary art deals with performance, installation, video and sound and certainly, there haven’t been enough of these works to see a common quality or to form a judgment on a Filipino identity.”

Prof. Flores said that perhaps it’s the story itself that should have that distinctive Filipino flavor. But what comes to my mind is does the author’s citizenship matter? In other words, if an American, Englishman, or Australian of Filipino heritage, or any heritage for that matter, wrote a very Filipino-flavored story after lengthy research, can it maybe make the story a part of Philippine speculative fiction? And if so, where does that place the beautiful melancholy of Kij Johnson’s excellently written “Fox Magic”? Is it American speculative fiction, the author having been born in that country? Or is it Japanese? Would the Japanese take and accept it as being the equivalent of one of their own stories written by one of their own citizens? Or not?

  • Tagalog : A Fun Language to Learn - Benny Lewis (a polyglot who, in the process of chronicling his mission to become fluent in Tagalog, dissects characteristics of the language that many of us may have been unaware of/taken for granted) [February 2011]

The good news is that Tagalog has no grammatical gender, no person or plural based conjugation, no grammatical cases like the dative and lacks many other features that could make it harder to learn. But it does indeed have complex parts to it that make it more interesting to learn (read: interesting since there has to be differences, not “hard” unless you like being a crybaby). The first of these are infixes (or prefixes when the word begins with a vowel). These are used to take a root verb and give it a time (past, present, future). So aral is the root, mag-aral means “to study” (or imperative study!), nag-aral is past tense studied, nag-aaral (repeated first syllable of root) is present tense study and mag-aaral is future tense.

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Rocket Kapre is an imprint of Eight Ray Sun Publishing Inc. (a new Philippine-based publisher), dedicated to bringing the very best of Philippine Speculative Fiction in English to a worldwide audience by means of digital distribution. More info can be found at our About section at the top of the page.