The language of aesthetics as the language of power

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare had his Queen Elizabeth. Michelangelo his Lorenzo de’ Medici. Leonardo da Vinci his Ludovico Sforza. Artists and their powerful patrons captured as still-life elements of their day.

According to experts, it wasn’t until the 19th century when most poets and playwrights, painters and sculptors, produced works of art in their own time “and dime,” relinquishing benefactors’ support for the more challenging role as artists peddling their own art.

The latter, of course, found its links on old-school artistic independence, a concept only too recently acknowledged and seemingly practiced in general by artists themselves.

Apparently in the past, artists depended a great deal on their patrons’ financial succor. Historically, artists had been known to be paupers. Their sacrifice of monetary compensation is today attributed—and this scientifically—to an artist’s neural preference for the rewards of artistic independence than personal wealth.

In fact, many writers died poor, even after an illustrious literary or artistic career. The names Franz Kafka, Johann Sebastian Bach, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickenson, Claude Monet, Henry David Thoreau, and Herman Melville should be enough to stress the point.

In the Philippines, there are more than a handful of names to choose from.

It should, however, be noted that artistic independence could fall prey to manipulation by the powers that be, with the artist unknowingly surrendering his or her artistic expression to his or her patron, if and when the artist’s skills are employed to speak for or on behalf of powerful institutions such as government.

The era of the Lake Poets of the 18th century—bards like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, in particular—had been criticized for their collaboration with the powers-that-be at the onset of the Romantic Movement of which they were the founders.

Charles Mahoney, author and associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut, raises questions as to whether such collaboration by artists with power and politics is acceptable and beneficial to the creative ecology.

His book, “Romantics and Renegades: The Poetics of Political Reaction,” studies up close the critiques of journalist William Hazlitt on writers and poets who worked under the auspices of government decades after the French Revolution, and how this artistic “apostasy” may have affected the artists’ output and public status.

Quoting E.P. Thompson’s now-classic analysis of the said era and its artists, he went on to define the ‘faultline’ breached by these poets as they collaborated with the powers that be:

“There is nothing in disenchantment inimical to art. But when aspiration is actively denied, we are at the edge of apostasy, and apostasy is a moral failure… it is an imaginative failure… It is an imaginative failure because it involves forgetting—or manipulating improperly—the authenticity of experience: a mutilation of the writer’s own previous existential imagination.”

The associate professor begins his discourse with the radical poet Leigh Hunt’s views of the status of the Poet Laureateship immediately after the death of Englishman Poet Laureate Henry James Pye in August 1813.

Pye was designated Poet Laureate in 1790 and was said to have been the first Poet Laureate to receive a fixed salary of £27 from government.

Hunt, in summary, viewed the office of the Poet Laureate as “arcane” and in point of fact, even “noxious” for the simple reason that it not only demeans the ruler through “slavish adulation,” it likewise severs the “poet from the patriot” by turning him into a “literary sycophant”.

To Hunt, the Laureateship was a form of burlesquein that it stripped both the head of state of his sovereignty (by depending on another’s skills to uplift his image) and the head of the “literary class” his creative independence by “kneeling” to another sovereign.

Crucial to a thorough understanding of Hunt’s critique of the Poet Laureate (or in our case, the National Artist recognition) is liberty of thought. It is immediately presumed that if government bestows such a recognition to the writer, that same recognition—often in the form of adulation and financial stipend—must come with a price, which is a writer’s intellectual honesty.

As often the case with recognitions given to writers by powerful entities, the same writers are now believed to be obligated to toe the government line. This is particularly disturbing in light of a government’s partiality towards oppressive laws and practices, such as corruption and tyranny.

History is replete with examples. There was philosopher Martin Heidegger who joined the Nazi Party in 1933. Englishman author David Irving was a holocaust denier. Norwegian novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, tagged the father of postmodern literature, openly supported Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s puppet government in Norway during World War II.

In the Philippines, especially during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, there was no lack of writers who sided and worked with the oppressive martial law regime.

To digress from a writer’s freedom in exchange for accolades and a grant (if not personal security), to adopt the ideas of the political sovereign in exchange for a writer’s intellectual honesty, however subtle or minute, brings to fore a problem long shunned in literary and journalistic circles: the language of aesthetics used as the language of power.

In short, art must secure its freedom or it is not art at all. Or to be more specific in our inquiry: should the language of art comingle with the language of power? For art to be art, must it forever be isolated from power dictates or manipulations?

Peru’s Nobel Literature Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa  (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Strange bedfellows they are, surely, in matters of theory. The idea has been carried by numerous writers in recent history, not the least of whom is Peruvian novelist and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.

Vargas Llosa, in his essay “Literature is Fire,” builds a convincing case against writers siding with the powers-that-be. “Warn them that literature is fire, that it means nonconformity and rebellion, that the raison d’être of a writer is protest, disagreement and criticism” (Mario Vargas Llosa, “Literature is Fire,” Making Waves: Essays, p. 72).

Ironically, Vargas Llosa himself ran for president of Peru and lost against Alberto Fujimori in the 1990 Peruvian General Elections.

The journalist and dystopian novelist George Orwell, in his essay “The Prevention of Literature,” explains further what this problem poses for the writer:

“It is… certain that literature is doomed if liberty of thought perishes. Not only is it doomed in any country which retains a totalitarian structure; but any writer who adopts the totalitarian outlook, who finds excuses for persecution and the falsification of reality, thereby destroys himself as a writer. There is no way out of this… A bought mind is a spoiled mind” (George Orwell, “The Prevention of Literature,” The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 4: In Front of your Nose 1945-1950).

While monarchies of the past took to choosing the artist they needed to support, in current-day democracies, the Constitution itself opens opportunities for government to support the creative community. This, in fact, is a welcome development, but nonetheless precarious when viewed from the perspective of government control.

Regardless of the general consensus that art is every bit a political act, most democratic countries, however, are still wary of the danger government subsidy poses in relation to the arts and culture.

Based on the paper by American Bar Association and Commission on College and University Legal Studies through the ABA Fund for Justice and Education, the United States Congress in its minority report insists that such endowments as given by the National Endowments for the Arts must neither violate nor dictate upon the artist’s aesthetic expressions.

“The minority report by the House of Representatives expressed concern that direct Federal support of the arts ‘could lead to attempts at political control of culture.’” (Freedom of Expression
at the National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved from

Such collaboration between artists and government could also lead to the creation of what some propose as the “Ministry of Culture,” whereby peer review panels dictate on what is acceptable or not in matters of art. This, by all means, hinder the varying aesthetic expressions, and literary and cultural dimensions.

On a more personal note, government recognition, as in the case of the Poet Laureate or the National Artist, might unwittingly force the artist to ally with government regardless of the latter’s dictatorial moorings.

We have seen this at work in the Philippine President’s State of the Nation address where celebrated film directors “managed the stage”. If ordinary artists, celebrated though they were, could fall into the grip of being dictated by the powers-that-be, could those recognized as National Artists or Poet Laureates be far behind?

The presumption is unfair, in the least, though not unimaginable or even impossible. I’m of the opinion that it all boils down to the decision of the individual National Artist or Poet Laureate to either support an oppressive regime or speak openly against it.

To speak in favor of the powers-that-be regardless of their political moorings can bring about further rewards. Speaking against it, of course, could run the risk of losing a much sought-after recognition and regular stipend.

Be that as it may, cultural and artistic communities must be open to discussions on the limits and degrees of an artist’s collaboration with governments, especially governments hell-bent on imposing dictatorial rule. In a world leaning towards totalitarianism, it is imperative for the artistic community to raise the issue.

A Poet Laureate, or in our case, the National Artist, is perceived as the canon of literary and cultural creation. To have them speak the praises of an oppressive regime could pave the way for dire consequences to follow, not only in the world of art but our sense of nation and human dignity as well.

As the late National Artist for Literature Cirilo F. Bautista wrote: “‘I chose to be a poet’—how impressive it sounds—but by that I mean that it was a conscious choice, that I, and nobody else, would be from that moment on responsible for my actions.”

More than ever, we must realize that what our artists, writers, and intellectuals say or produce by way of their art are confessions in stone. It is important as never before to consider either our culture’s survival or its inevitable destruction under the guise of a benefactor’s support. G




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