This article originally appeared in Art+ Magazine Issue No. 35. The article is republished in honor of Neil Doloricon who passed away on 16 July 2021.
Text by Samito Jalbuena; Images courtesy of Nova Gallery.
Can success happen to the Social Realist?
A recent debate at the Royal Academy in the United Kingdom revives the antagonism behind high prices in art. The written exchange between Georgina Adam, art market observer for the Financial Times, and J.J. Charlesworth, art critic and associate editor of ArtReview magazine, pits opinions and highlights a divergence in the art world.
Adam says that profit has allowed artists and art lovers better opportunities, while Charlesworth argues that high prices have turned art into mere financial investment. Both sides may have a point. “High prices have enabled many artists to follow their dreams and go places they couldn’t have dreamed of,” says Adam. But Charlesworth retorts: “‘Financialization’ means turning the buying and selling of art into nothing more than another asset class, just another investment opportunity. Its artistic value is therefore of secondary significance. This dynamic has the effect of eating [the intrinsic, social and cultural value of art] from the inside.”
It seems debates of this kind have been going on forever, especially now that art has achieved a crowning glory in various bull markets, including that of the local scene. But what if extraordinary financial success begins to accrue for the Social Realist, that most seemingly beneficent and politically activist subspecies of the artistic lot? If given the money to buy a Porsche, will he still be able to remain true to his art?
Social Realism is a style of representational art where the subject matter represents the ills and inequalities of society as it features everyday conditions of the working class and the poor, and is critical of the social structures and cultural patterns that maintain these conditions. While Social Realism’s adherents vary their techniques, their choice of subject matter always utilizes a form of descriptive or critical realism.
In the Philippines and around the world, Social Realism has achieved a tinge of the left-leaning, what others may even label Communist or Marxist in aspiration. However, Social Realism should not to be confused with Socialist Realism, the official Soviet art form that was institutionalized by Joseph Stalin in 1934 and was later adopted by communist parties worldwide. Although related, the terms are distinct.
Social Realism is a broader category that depicts subjects of social concern, while Socialist Realism is in a class of its own. True to the Communist Party, the latter style must satisfy four requirements that were laid down as rules by the Soviet Congress of 1934. The rules are that the work should be: proletarian, meaning the piece must be relevant to the workers and understandable to them; typical, the art should depict scenes of the everyday life of the people; realistic, it must be representational; and partisan, it should support the aims of the Communist Party and its struggle for emancipation.
Perhaps the tags Social Realism and Socialist Realism won’t mean anything in today’s world where a Red China seems to be more capitalist than the West, and Moscow has become a center for high living. But in spite of certain nations’ political and economic evolutions in the past few decades and the ideological changes that have occurred with certain former comrades, there persists a longstanding image of the Social Realist as a bleeding heart, unwavering in his approach to social ills. So again, what happens if “financialization” and too much success happens to the Social Realist? If he depicts the poor, what kind of internal turmoil should erupt to the surface, if his depictions make him rich because of a demand for his art?
In this regard, Art+ magazine sought the opinion of Leonilo “Neil” Ortega Doloricon to thresh out some issues. Born in 1957, Doloricon graduated in 1981 with a degree in Fine Arts from the University of the Philippines in Diliman and was witness to the turbulent era of political activism that spawned leftist movements on campus and beyond. Though Doloricon started by painting still lifes and abstractions, he is recognized today for his sharp visual allegories of prevailing social realities, a recognition that made him a Thirteen Artists Awardee of the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1990. Despite shifting to non-social realist subject matter last year for a show titled Construct at Patrick Reyno’s Now Gallery in Makati, he still shows a deep involvement with social issues.
And his answer to the question at hand is a big perhaps. “A Social Realist can enjoy extraordinary financial success and remain true to his art as long as there is a maintenance of lifestyle,” says the former artist-in-residence of UP, who was officially appointed as UP Artist II, an award for intensive artistic productivity. “Nowadays, there’s a focus on the creative. It is hard to moralize about the aforementioned issues because financial earnings are also a need. However, money should not be the only concern of artists.” Indeed, success for a Social Realist is about being able to make biting commentary on society.
Despite Doloricon’s forays into other subject matter such as abstract art, he says that collectors persist in buying his Social Realist works because of the public’s perception that he is only a Social Realist, not an artist who dabbles in many forms. “Despite my experimentation with other styles, the collectors want my SR artworks,” he says.
Ultimately, this is Doloricon’s answer to the debate: “Financial rewards should help creativity.”
Since his artworks have sold successfully, one assumes the monetary gain has spurred him to greater productivity this year. The answer lies in his latest solo show, this time with Nova Gallery. The exhibit titled Huling Balita demonstrates the artist’s representation of the “unedited” plight of laborers and disenfranchised individuals. “It is the news that is given to you straight in all its gore and glory,” says a preface to the show. “You are left to ponder whether your perception of ‘news’ will affect you or will be dismissed.” The artist’s raw power was expressed in that most recent exhibit, which ran from October 11 to 31 this year.