It is with only a very slight trace of irony that I can proclaim with a straight face that popular culture in the Philippines is dead. Naturally, I am not referring to the classic anthropological definition of culture; as in the ways and means in which we as a people do things. Nor am I am referring to the fractured fairytale meanderings of someone like James Fallows who erroneously proclaimed that the Philippine culture is flawed. As if any culture in the world is homogenous in nature anyway.
No, I am instead proclaiming that intellectual and artistic culture, in other words art, music, and literature, is essentially dead.
With only a slight nod to satire and sarcasm, it is far to easy to write the obituary of Philippine cultural communities. In the place of innovators like Botong Francisco, Solomon Saprid, and Nick Joaquin who mined Philippine high and low culture for inspiration, we are left with reactive and navel-gazing obsessed self-proclaimed auteurs who mine modern society for sources of material to bludgeon an unsuspecting and unprepared population into a state of fatalism and defeatism. And that is being charitable. Where once we had an explosion of innovation and perspectives, Philippine pop culture is left almost…bereft of excitement.
When I refer to the death of culture, I am in truth referring to our inability as a society to discourse. Tony Judt, prior to his passing, noted that the inherent failing in the modern world is our inability to talk anymore. Instead we find ourselves banding together against new ideas, railing against those who dare raise a critical word or different idea, and instead of listening and discussing, attempt to bury their ideas under an avalanche of nay-saying.
It is the wretched state of cultural discourse that has left us in this unenviable position of putting national narratives to bed. If culture and art is supposed to be dedicated to higher purpose, then our purpose has been to wholly defeat the Filipino spirit. Our sense of artistic community has been trampled in favor of almost incestuous self-flagellation, where anyone who dares criticize the commonly acceptable understanding and themes in Philippine culture (and history) is taken out behind the woodshed and flogged for daring to raise a new idea, or dismissed out of hand using a number of choice phrases. There is a prevailing sense of ennui in Philippine culture. A creeping almost haunting perception that we have become static; and in that state are collapsing in on ourselves. A culture that lacks vibrancy, that is absent artistic conflict and joy, chaotic exploration and intellectual combativeness, is stuck and unchanging. What else is death, but a state of never changing?
In some sense, this post is a defense of Don Jaucian and his article on “The Life and Death of OPM.” and Leloy Claudio’s “OPM is dead, so sue me.”. OPM while, admittedly not in my cultural wheelhouse, shares the same stage as art, literature, and history. They are part in parcel with national cultural narratives and discourse. The reactions to those two pieces, thus, share similarities to the misguided reactions you see to writers who attempt to offer different perspectives on our shared history, or on the nature of art today, or on the life and times of Andres Bonifacio. In other words, anything that attempts to prick the standard prevailing opinion is seen as an attack on “Pinoyness” and as a result shouted down from on high (or from down low) and summarily dismissed. In essence, Jaucian is arguing that ‘popular’ music in the Philippine has become static; absent of innovation and reduced to regurgitating the sounds of the past and maintaining an auditory status quo. Since when has the status quo become enviable and defensible?
Vibrant arts and cultural communities are founded on a sense of open-ended discourse that is supported through various institutions. If anything, artists, writers, singers, directors, now share the same space as Edward Said’s public intellectual: They exist to challenge the status quo, no matter what it may be, and attempt to offer new perspectives on the social condition. But to be truly effective, there must be a cultural affinity for fostering discourse. That naturally leads to the idea that reflection is paramount. Critics exist, they must exist, to ignite intellectual discourse and challenge prevailing attitudes; whatever they may be.
When it comes to culture and arts communities intellectual discourse and accepted differences can only be fostered when there are clear institutional mechanisms that allow different perspectives to reach the mainstream. In the United States there are a number of clear structural examples, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and National Public Radio. Museums as well fulfill this role, as do private institutions and foundations that are dedicated to supporting arts and artists. For a variety of reasons, we lack many of those structures. But these structures not only shine a light on worthy art and artists, they help arm the general population with the tools necessary to critically engage with cultural attitudes and ideas. The vacuum left by the disappearance of innovation enhancing structures (see FEU in the 1950s for example) has instead been filled by corporate machines dedicated to churning out mass-market, pre-packaged, focus-group supported singing, dancing, and acting automatons that squarely aim to be as unchallenging and uninteresting as possible. Popular has become pop, which has in turn become fluff.
There are a number of levels of culture, hence the concepts of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, or mainstream and independent arts. In the Philippines the difference between the two is stark, almost depressingly so. The innovation that is taking place outside of the mainstream rarely, if ever, filters into popular consciousness. This is no more obvious than in how we collectively view our national culture and society. Philippine pop culture has become little more than an opiate for the masses; a tool that keeps Filipinos shackled by antiquated ideas and a disturbing lack of innovation in terms of art, music, and literature. With the absence of that innovation, we need more critical voices challenging the status quo and questioning why isn’t popular culture evolving? Why are we ‘stuck’? And how the hell do we get ‘un-stuck’?
Honest critics fulfill the role of Said’s public intellectuals, they stand within and outside of the system, poking, prodding, and moving it along. We need that. We need to move.
And come on, aren’t we all getting just a little bored with the status quo?