Debate on Beauty in the Philippines

March 2006 -

Art historian Marion Pastor Roces (Manila) and theatre-maker Rustom Bharucha (Calcutta, India) organized the conference The Politics of Beauty in the Philippines in January 2006. At the conference, experts and artists from all over the world gathered to discuss the concept of beauty and how political developments affect how we experience beauty.

Beauty is a complicated subject, and the many possible interpretations of the concept led discussions to wander from the beauty of the portraits of martyrs (meaning: suicide attackers) in the Arabian world by author and publisher Mai Ghoussoub (Lebanon/England) to the work of Cuban modernist Wifredo Lam by art historian Gerardo Mosquera (Cuba). The presentation of Lam's paintings stimulated a debate about ideal beauty in and outside of the West.

The topics and discussions during the two-day conference in Manila were therefore strongly influenced by political and social analyses, aspects that cannot be viewed as separate from current world developments. Even the work of Wilfredo Lam and their discussion can be considered political. In terms of style and content his paintings can be likened to those of Picasso, with whom he had much contact and whose work Lam influenced in turn. But international cultural-political relations prevented the Cuban from reaching Western books on the history of art. Mosquera also explained that one of Lam's best paintings hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, near the toilets.

The discussions often referred to the art politics of both Hitler and Stalin. Entartete kunst and what was called Staatskunst were considered the washout from systems that oppressed creativity and prescribed what was and was not allowed. It was also concluded that oppressive systems of this type still exist. Even Europe appears to be infected by them. The recent debate on the Turkish action film Kurtlar Vadisi ( The Valley of the 'Wolves), which portrays Americans as the bad guys, is a sad example in this respect. German politician Stoiber wanted the controversial film banned.

Luckily, politics was not the only factor influencing the discussion. Art critic and curator Lee Weng Choy (Hong Kong) alleged that love and beauty are strongly related and can positively affect one another. This optimistic view was reinforced by the presentation of work by Simryn Gill (Singapore/Malaysia). As thanks for organizing the extremely successful conference, Marion Pastor Roces received a stunning necklace he had made. The pages of a world atlas had been made into beads, which were strung to make the necklace. The world around your neck, to decorate your being. A beautiful metaphor.

Els van der Plas is Director of the Prince Claus Fund.

The conference The Politics of Beauty was initiated by the theme Beauty in Context , launched by the Prince Claus Fund in 1998. The fund was also the sole financier of The Politics of Beauty.