Books & Art

F. Sionil Jose Posts a Follow-Up After His Letter to National Museum Goes Viral

"I have lived for 93 years-some say this is already too long..."
IMAGE The Official Gazette (Twitter: @govph)
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In case you missed it, writer F. Sionil Jose caused a small uproar in the literary community over the weekend when a letter he sent to Ramon del Rosario, Jr., president and CEO of PHINMA Corporation, on the occasion of a recent visit to the Museum of Natural History. The 93-year-old writer, however, wanted to talk about the "Arts Museum" (he means the National Museum of Fine Arts, formerly the National Art Gallery).

In short, F. Sionil Jose took issue with the works of artist Emilio Aguilar Cruz, and to a lesser extent, Andres Cristobal Cruz, being in the gallery:

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The letter was addressed to del Rosario, a patron of the museum, copying in museum director Jeremy Barnes and assistant director Ana Labrador. It was made public through a post by Therese Cruz, daughter of Emilio Aguilar Cruz, who wrote: "f. sionil jose, philippine national artist for literature, cannot even write a simple letter in competent english."

One may recall that a hall named after Emilio Aguilar Cruz was inaugrated at the National Museum in 2015, after the Cruz family donated 70 of the artist's paintings to the National Museum. Jose objects to this, calling both Cruzes "non-entities" in the arts.

But Jose isn't done. Today, noting that his letter had been found "circulating on the Internet without my proper knowledge" and that it had been "eliciting some lively comments," he wrote a follow-up:

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My letter to the great patron of the National Museum, Ramon del Rosario, Jr., which is circulating on Facebook and the Internet without my prior knowledge, is eliciting some lively comments. Let me explain that letter further.

Simple lang ang sinasabi ko. Our National Museum today is an institution we can all be proud of. There is no reason now why Filipinos should not flock to it because the admission is free. The National Museum belongs to us and is supported by us, and itshould under no condition exhibit anything but the best that our artists have created.

I object to the presence of a work by Andres Cristobal Cruz and most of all a room dedicated to Emilio Aguilar Cruz. Both have not produced any significant body of work, either paintings or books, of great artistry. It is important, no, it is necessary, that the National Museum’s permanent collections and exhibits are appraised by a committee or jury of expert curators, scholars and acknowledged leaders in art and culture, and that this process is transparent.

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The National Museum is not a private museum or art gallery — there is no room for freedom to mount exhibits based on personal choice or influence. It is a public museum. Its curators and administrators are government officials, who by the very nature of their chosen mission, must serve the people — contribute to our education on Philippine art and culture, select works of cultural significance, and apply the same standards of quality and careful acquisition processes as other premier public cultural institutions and world-class museums.

My opinion is just an opinion, but I’d like to consider it a learned opinion. I’ve spent a lifetime writing about our art and culture. I also personally knew and have had many conversations with our great artists, among them our contemporary artists.

From 1967 to 1977, I operated the Solidaridad Galleries for the sole purpose of giving our art a Filipino face. I also exhibited artists from Asia, and sponsored lectures and demonstrations on art, culture and music. Many of our leading artists today were introduced by the gallery.

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I also taught a course on Philippine art and culture at the undergraduate and graduate levels at the University of Santo Tomas, De La Salle University, and University of California, Berkeley. I continue to speak on art and culture at Philippine schools and institutions to this very day.

Straightforward ito. Our National Museum is something we can all be very proud of. It is the repository of our cultural heritage, the best of Philippine artistry, and therefore one of the important paths to nationhood. Our National Museum has finally emerged after many years of decay and indifference; we cannot afford to take a step backward.

I have lived for 93 years — some say this is already too long — but for this tired, old man, the time has not yet come for me to be silent.

The National Artist for Literature is no stranger to controversy. In 2015, he wrote in an essay: "I know now that in the event of a war with China, many of our ethnic Chinese will side with China so I will not ask anymore on whose side they will be if that war breaks out." (He is also no stranger to the art of doubling down, writing a follow-up column to his original essay.)

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Or, in case he hasn't made himself clear: "For this tired, old man, the time has not yet come for me to be silent."

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