The Social Form of Art

In Essays by pcan

The criticism of Alice Guillermo presents an instance in which the encounter of the work of art resists a series of possible alienations even as it profoundly acknowledges the integrity of distinct form. The critic in this situation attentively dwells on the material of this form so that she may be able to explicate the ecology and the sociality without which it cannot concretize. The work of art, therefore, becomes the work of the world, extensively and deeply conceived. Such present-ness is vital as the critic faces the work in the world and tries to ramify that world beyond what is before her. This is one alienation that is calibrated. The work of art transpiring in the world becomes the work of the critic who lets it matter in language, freights it and leavens it with presence so that human potential unerringly turns plastic, or better still, animate:

Against the cold stone, tomblike and silent, are the living glances, supplicating, questioning, challenging, or speaking—the eyes quick with feeling or the movements of thought, the mouths delicately shaping speech, the expressive gestures, and the bodies in their postures determined by the conditions of work and social circumstance. The workers reach out to the viewer with a finely focused human presence, a pervading reality made even more acute by an implicit sense of struggle, a vital tension coming through.1

Guillermo, however, does not only constellate the work and the world. She is also interested in how the work and the world play out in time. Though this effort need not end up in a proposition of art history, it is nearly by default an articulation of a desire to historicize or to furnish a context for that which materializes as art. The art critical practice of Guillermo, therefore, is parlayed into a consolidation of sorts of an art historical discourse. The criticism of the everyday life of art and exhibition-making becomes the primary ethnographic datum, as it were, of art history. While mediated by procedure, the categories of artwork, artist, and exhibition become some kind of evidence of the life/world of art in time. Here, the status of these agencies is complicated because the supposed object of critique is actually the subjectivity of the critique. The work of art finally overcomes both the isolation and the seriality of objecthood within an autonomous space, as it is reinscribed within a wider meshwork of relations. This is the second moment of alienation that is hurdled.

The third one intersects with the professional biography of Guillermo as a teacher, scholar, and academician within a broadly intuited realm of the Humanities. She would situate the study of art across the politics of culture and its contentious representations. In this regard, she was insistent on a reappraisal of the discriminations of high art and the recuperation of a genus of art that has been stigmatized as bearing inferior aesthetic valence. For her, the binarisms wedded into fine art and folk art, art and craft, and so on are not only needless, they ultimately affirm the untenable asymmetries of class, ethnicity, and the other constitutions of the self. In other words, she sought to restore the generative relationships of forms within a more generous Humanities, one that does not only invest in art but in an affective sensibility that is not beholden to the doxa and habitus of a cultural elite. This made her engage in a wide gamut of interests and disciplines, as she wrote not only on the visual arts but on film, literature, and performance as well as forayed into the commentary of the public sphere and the socio-political sensorium in general. She may have been the only practitioner of this kind in her time: a critic of faceted sympathies and a gifted observer of all things Philippine. All told, the Humanities inspired Guillermo to evoke the big picture, as it were.

What this anthology offers to the reader is the relationship of the art critic to the language with which to disseminate the criticism. This is a language shaped by academic knowledge as well as experience with the material of art and the life of artists. The interplay between the two is oftentimes complex, steeped in contradictions as well as in efforts at reconstruction which defy convenient dualities. Moreover, this language passes through circuits that are not exclusively within the domain of the art world and academe, which in the long term may morph into echo chambers and hermetic circles. The language of art criticism is transformed time and again through the parole of its dissemination and the politics of reading itself. What is gathered here are essays for the mass-circulation popular press that addresses a general audience. The critic finds the most suitable pitch or tone with which to put the discourse across without necessarily diminishing its theoretical density. This is a tough act to carry out, but one that is finessed over years of practice. It is for this reason that Guillermo’s turn of phrase can at once be lyrical and incendiary. Most of all, it is ostensive, alert and wide-eyed to metaphorical cognates. It is demonstrative, precise in its simulation of an ambience, punctual in its poetic urgency. For instance:

There is a continuous sense of submergence and perilous drifting in a Freudian sea, twilight-violet or blood-red, where the convolutions of brain and gut become chambers of coral and sea anemone. Space here is transparent and in timeless suspension, enclosed and hermetic as in a womb. In the fluid vehicle, brains float and innards unravel and spread out for scrutiny as hairlike cilia comb the waters and absurd organic accordions contract and expand. At one time, a homunculus with a threatening face and vestigial claws rends the nightmare open.2

The other aspect that his compendium focuses on in the conduct of critical writing is method. Guillermo’s sustained argumentation on the intricate relationship between art and the socius and the concomitant dynamism that both infuse into each other is supported by a scheme of thinking and writing that endeavors to cast art as an integral form. This is wrought in the dialectic between historical forces and the aesthetic intervention, a mixture of the delicate touching at the seams of Theodor Adorno and the rupture prefigured by Walter Benjamin. Guillermo reweaves this theoretical textile through a careful teasing out of the strands of the formal fabric without letting the fabric overdetermine the form as mere sociological function. Useful in this operation is her turn to the semiotic as a sieve through which the material condition of art and the artistic condition of the material are imagined to condense in sensuous particularity and political quality. Layered around this formativity of the artwork is the ideological formation of the beholder, a subject to be sure, of the Althusserian apparatus and its negative critique. It is at this point that Guillermo delicately pushes and pulls the various forms of materiality as a way to elude the capture of instrumentalization or idealization and the defiles of reduction or generalization. Her sensitivity to humanistic philosophy, materialist critique, and the history of art strongly places her at an angle of vision to enable her to discern the nodes of context and the elucidations of emergence. Forms, therefore, are rooted and yet released, relativized and yet distinguished, cherished and yet implicated. A work of art in Guillermo’s critical program is not reducible to a leviathan force; it is rather rendered complicit and intractable in an assemblage or a conjuncture. An encompassing “cognitive mapping” is revealed through levels of facture and meaning even as a singularity finds it ground.

In grappling with language, the art critic astutely choreographs the tension between form and content. These categories are provisional, with their autonomies or self-sufficiencies dissolved in a vigorous interaction between discrepant phases of a work’s formativity. In the succeeding quote, Guillermo reveals the reciprocations between technique and discourse as well as the conjuration of a feeling:

Conflict is expressed in a vigorous dialectic of lines, as in Eskirol. The continuous oscillation of outlines and the lively dialogue of gesture is disciplined by a stern geometric framework of verticals and horizontals. This may likewise function on the symbolic level, articulating the barrier separating protagonist and antagonist in the conflict…Characterization is achieved through gesture and telling detail: the sleek mustache of the ilustrado, the long flowing hair of Sisa. Faces speak, mock, grieve, or silently stare. At times, a kind of historical atmosphere is attained, summing up in an image the collective experiences of a people. But one important contribution of Castillo is the image of the hero that is realized in a few of his works. Truly, here is an artist who has not, in any obscure or patent form, betrayed the people in his portrayal of them.3

The language and the method of criticism are finally sharpened in light of the praxis of Guillermo, foremost as a writer in media and popular culture who endeavors to reach out to a wide public that is introduced to the modernities of an aesthetic situation, or specifically, the appreciation of specific objects, actions, and sensations that fall under the epistemological category of art. This struggle with language and method to discursively assemble an audience would form the praxis of Guillermo’s persistent pedagogy as a critic whose textual production is instructive because it constantly deconstructs and re-institutes a fragmented humanity and its creative expressions.

In her critical sorties, Guillermo writes affectively and persuasively and is never glib or smug; she neither peddles influence nor sells contrived ideas. She does not try to dazzle the unsuspecting reader with self-referential word play that has very little regard for intellectual lineage. She stays away from high-handed verbiage and does not write with a pose, but with a certain “sharpness that draws blood.”4 And when she finds weakness in the art, she hints at options even for social realist artists whom she thinks need to work on expressivity, the characterization of the particular, and inventiveness as a way to demystify the typical as well as the academic and the anecdotal. All told, her writing does not suffer pretensions and cares for the public’s labor to ponder and probe, not consumed by the fantasy and conceit of cultivated fluency.

Perhaps it is in the exposition of social realism where Guillermo’s mindset percolates. It is for this reason that one of her essays, “Abstract and/or Figurative Art: A Wrong Choice,” is set apart in this anthology. This is largely to shed light on a polemic that has acute implications. One of the main arguments to shore up this discourse of social realism pertains to how the form embodies the essential elements of the phrase: “social” and “realism.” Guillermo seeks to enhance this politically charged form that has been claimed by the dialectical tradition as well as socialist ideology. On the other hand, the ample reach of both the “social” and “realism” also lends well to a liberal demos, affirming the ethos and habitus of the popular, because it is supposedly of, for, and by the people. These tendencies would be in the long term framed institutionally, and therefore “officially,” by governments and academies, or both.

Guillermo disciplines the polytropic disposition of the term by stating that the social realist is not academic and not anecdotal. In this formulation, realism, which comes to a post-colonial art history via academic realism, is severed from its orthodox origins. That being said, the social, which may be imagined to dissipate as some kind of “scattered phenomena,” cannot be described as unmediated or indiscriminate. Guillermo, therefore, simultaneously emancipates and hinges the social realist form, from the strictures of the institution and the fantasies of freedom, on the one hand, to the articulation of the material condition and the liberation of its prospects, on the other. Through this delineation, it assumes an irreducible particularity, inflected with humanistic expressivity and inventiveness, and aspires to a total or universal “thought-feeling complex.” For Guillermo, this is the only way to frustrate any effort to drain the energies of the social and the real through the routine exercises of instrumentalist instinct.

The other salient trajectory into which the social realist passes is the modern. It is the post-colonial modern that sustains the critique of the hegemonic canon and institutional power and lets the social realist refunction distortion and abstraction, for instance, as idioms of negation and transcendence. The modern breaks through tradition even as it renews it. The modern, therefore, reorganizes a subjectivity best suited to respond to the condition of “time” and what it means to invest “space” or locality with present-ness; and how the latter gains the valence of a historical context, which absorbs the ethnic, the national, the contra-colonial. Inevitably, the consciousness of the self and of the past suffuses this subjectivity.

Finally, as has been alluded to earlier, the social realist speaks to the temptations of the people and the popular. This moment mutates into variations across a spectrum of the related manifestations of the “mass” and the “commodity” both of which circulate in labor movements and markets, in solidarities and consumers. It is at this conjuncture that the social realist intervenes to foreground the category of class and politically mediate the mass to the extent that the aesthetic material becomes a pedagogical material, a means of learning the intricacies of a resolutely class society.

This assemblage enables Guillermo to bring into a dynamic interaction, a rhythmic reciprocation of forces so that the social realist does not only fulfill its axiological promise of rearticulating the social ethically and aesthetically, it also, finally, pursues the praxiological premise of art as an embedded permanent seminar in the imagination of Beuys under the auspices of a permanent war fully fleshed out in action as contemplated by Foucault.

In the landscape of art critics in the Philippines, Guillermo was one of the most prolific and the most dedicated to the métier.5 While her colleagues like Leonidas Benesa, Emmanuel Eric Torres, Rod Paras Perez, and Cid Reyes furthered artistic and curatorial practice alongside criticism, she was dedicated to writing and teaching.6 It was also Guillermo who would risk to always locate the nexus between art and society. Paramount in her mind were the coordinates of production that oriented the vast enterprise of art as a project of society and not a culmination of commodity or the achievement of objecthood. But never was Guillermo not curious and inquisitive. Her passage into the work was not knowledge fully formed or judgement conclusively crafted. It was rather what she felicitously called frisson, the thrill of the senses that arouse, enliven, quicken. A shiver or a chill, the frisson is an omen; it is as well a visceral response. It was this stirring that drew her to art, the same catalyst that she redistributed across the decisively, relentlessly social form.


1 Alice G. Guillermo, “Renewing Realism,” Who, 28 September 1983, 31.
2 A. G. Guillermo, “Malang’s Pleasure, Drilon’s Pain,” Observer, 12 May 1981, 46.
3 A. G. Guillermo, “Castillo: A Total Vision,” Cultural Research Bulletin 1, no. 2 (October-November 1975): 12.
4 A. G. Guillermo, “Abdulmari Imao: The Tausog Artist Does a Pigafetta,” Who, 17 May 1980, 21.
5 See Patrick D. Flores, “The Abstractions of Critique: Alice Guillermo and the Social Imperative of Art,” Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia 3, no. 1 (March 2019): 125–42.
6 See Patrick D. Flores, “Lineage: Leonidas Benesa and Alice Guillermo,” Pananaw 6 (2007): 8–15.

From Frisson: The Collected Criticism of Alice Guillermo. Download the complete book here.