The art of everyday life

Published November 6, 2021, 12:30 PM

by AA Patawaran

In Manila, artistic things are so common they are taken for granted

ART ALL AROUND US The Manila Museum of Fine Arts

Life is a museum.

The present always holds a record of the past, acting as a conduit between it and the future. In the present, the past makes its way to the future, in which it aims to perpetuate or obliterate itself.

The word museum is of Greek origin, from mouseion, which means a place or temple dedicated to the muses, one designed to inspire the senses or to honor the divinities that inspire them. While the purpose of most modern museums is to collect, preserve, interpret, and display art, artifacts, and other objects of cultural, historical, social, or scientific significance, they still also serve to fire up the senses, to transport the viewer to other times, to provide answers to questions about the conditions in which the viewer finds himself.

Which is exactly what everyday life should be able to do. In fact, life is what museums are all about, whether they are a museum of art or natural history or science or a war. Everyday life is just one day in the continuing saga of life and, as such, it is rife with the lessons of history and with glimpses of the future that will follow it.

In places like Madrid or Florence or Paris, art is everywhere, outside of their museums, such as the Prado or the Galleria dell’Accademia or the Louvre, which are among the largest, most popular, most important in the world. In Athens, for instance, the deities of Greek myths still lord over the city, the Lapiths and the Centaurs still haunting it. In Istanbul, apart from the architecture, which is a portal to its rich, millennia-long history, the remains of civilizations past, from the Romans to the Ottomans, are on the streets like everyday things. In Prague, a stroll around Charles Bridge is as enriching as a museum tour, perhaps infinitely more, replete with an encounter with the swans on the bank of the Vlatava and a pop culture immersion at the Lennon Wall. In many of these European cities, art is the music that spills out of cafés and the bistros. It is the harmonies of the violinist in the street corner in Rome playing anywhere between “Por Una Cabeza” and Madonna’s “Rain” for spare change or a flutist rendering a wind version of Elvis Presley’s “Always on My Mind” at a Métro de Bruxelles stop.

BAYANI SA ILALIM The Manila Underpass Mural

Elsewhere in the world, in Addis Ababa, not many museums, but the Ethiopians on average are a walking museum piece, their big, bright, beautiful, and expressive eyes tell the story of a nation never conquered. The Italians tried, not once, not twice, many times, but all they managed was a brief rule, following the Second Italo-Ethiopian War orchestrated by the fascist Benito Mussolini and then put to an abrupt end by the British and Ethiopian freedom fighters under Haile Selassie returning from his English exile just before World War II broke out.

Often, I try to put myself in a foreigner’s shoes when I walk down the streets of Manila, only because where these foreigners come from, whether from New York or Amsterdam or Venice, even Singapore, there is so much more appreciation for art and culture, not only from patrons, collectors, and art aficionados but, more important, also from the government. During these experiments, I rid myself of our constant lament that our cities are poorly planned, if planned at all. I see cigarette butts on the pavements but, well, you see as much of them on Turkish or Toulousain or German or Dutch streets, too. I’ve been to Paris twice while the garbage collectors were on strike, and maybe it’s just me, but it was still beautiful, the heaps of trash collecting on the sidewalk notwithstanding.

I’m not saying there is no art in everyday Manila. It is, I should say, the complete opposite of the truth, at least where art has vanished, along with many of our historical buildings. It was in those tree-lined thoroughfares that have been widened to accommodate the excess of cars plying them. It was in the parks, such as the park square on Nuestra Señora de Guia off Roxas Boulevard, just across the US Embassy, which, while it once reminded me of the shady park squares on the World Heritage Site Andrássy Avenue in Budapest, has now been converted into basketball courts.

RULER OF MANILA Plaza Rajah Sulayman

Still, we can’t have lost all that art, despite our negligence. I mean ours is a people who lives and breathes art. Art is so common it is taken for granted. Outside of Manila, especially where industrialization and urbanization have yet to catch up, across the changing landscape of hills and flatlands, sand dunes and forests, through which run rivers and lakes and streams and creeks, the muses are at constant play and so the artistic spirit of the people are constantly stimulated.

Whatever happens is always the stuff of artistic ruminations, such as those that made it to the canvases of Ang Kiukok or the monuments of Guillermo Tolentino, the films of Lino Brocka or the music of Asin, the novels of F. Sionil Jose or the poems of Rio Alma, or the ordinary, everyday life of Jose Rizal that is now the stuff of legend.

After a talk I gave about writing during the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival at the Raffles Makati in 2018, I was approached by an elderly woman who invited me to teach her farming community in Laguna. She said she wanted farming and agriculture to figure prominently in today’s literature, in the stories and poems, in the songs and films that this generation was churning out. “Why not?” she said, trying to convince herself more than me. “We are a nation of farmers. We have all these agricultural riches. We are an agricultural nation.”

HERO OF THE COUNTRY The Rizal Monument in Rizal Park

I resolve to open my eyes from now on. I want to see more art in my country, but first I will start with my city, whether it is divine art that manifests itself as the sun setting over Manila Bay or the art of the Filipino that is on display in his everyday dealings, the graffiti along that long stretch of Finance Road or the beauty that is the saleswoman carrying her wares on top of her head through the narrow alleys of Cartimar in Pasay City. Maybe when I find myself negotiating the narrow alleys of a squatter colony, say in Guadalupe or, right where I work, in Intramuros, the very crown of our colonial past, I would look at those makeshift houses in a more positive light. Although it is very likely I would feel sorry for myself, I should think that someday, maybe 200 years from now, when by any luck we could have stumbled upon some solution to poverty and homelessness could be a thing of the past, I would look at these structures—made of planks of discarded wood, scraps of rusty corrugated iron, and all manner of detritus such as old tarpaulin-turned-canopy and used tires to keep the roofs together—as evidence of our resilience and resourcefulness and our ability to survive the injustices of life. Either that or, heaven forbid, 200 years from now, when there are too many of us to each have enough decent space on a limited planet, these shanties would be evidence of the luxury we once had.

Whatever happens is always the stuff of artistic ruminations, such as those that made it to the canvases of Ang Kiukok or the monuments of Guillermo Tolentino, the films of Lino Brocka or the music of Asin, the novels of F. Sionil Jose or the poems of Rio Alma, or the ordinary, everyday life of Jose Rizal that is now the stuff of legend.  

Art happens first on the street and then it makes it to the museum. I’d like to see more of it happen where it does, before it is hung on a museum wall and preserved for all time.