Archival print on paper
Brenda V. Fajardo (b. 1940) wrote the monograph Aesthetics of Poverty: A Rationale in Designing for Philippine Theater around the early 80’s. By the time she completed the text, Fajardo had studied agriculture, taught art in primary and secondary school, and practiced as a visual artist. She came to the field of theater, and in the course of time would commit a large part of her professional life to PETA, with a sense of fulcrum. “Grounded” may well be the most apt word to describe this stance, sensitive as she was to the conditions of rearing. Her intuition for nature and culture in the delicate process of cultivation animated her talent to create and to share the spirit with a broad art world of students, peers, and cultural workers. Fajardo co-founded the Philippine Art Educators Association with Araceli Limcaco Dans in 1968; and from 1985 to 1991 chaired the Department of Humanities of the University of the Philippines, Diliman, where she received her doctorate in Philippine Studies in 1997. She co-wrote and illustrated the Basic Integrated Theater Arts Workshop or BITAW of the PETA Theater Workshop Manual Series in 1989.
Key in Fajardo’s reflections for the monograph is “experience,” perhaps in conversation with the philosopher John Dewey who said that gardening in schools “affords an avenue of approach to the knowledge of the place farming and horticulture have had in the history of the human race and which they occupy in present social organization. Carried on in an environment educationally controlled, they are means for making a study of facts of growth, the chemistry of soil, the role of light, air, moisture, injurious and helpful animal life…”_
The monograph opens precisely with Dewey’s argument on the intimate relationship between experience and ecology, which shapes the senses of the creator and the receiver of art. Fajardo recognizes that always held in a sensitive relationship are the expressivity of art, its internal power, on the one hand, and the material forces that make it possible, on the other. Thus, as art possesses integrity and intelligence, so does it demonstrate its materiality. It is at this instance that Fajardo foregrounds the concept of “social value.” The value is honed in the life of forms, the techniques of their making. This value is deemed social, immersed in the social and simultaneously immerses the social.
The phrase “social value” tends to surmount the duality between “form” and “content.” Both are part of a circuit, of a bundle of nerves, so to speak. Like this phrase, the formulation “aesthetics of poverty” is textured. It is usually thought that “aesthetics” belongs to a rarefied realm of privileged sensibility and that “poverty” can never aspire to be part of it because it exemplifies the failure to transcend. Aesthetics is supposedly a consummation, an achievement of a high level of feeling and thinking; at the other pole, poverty is scarcity, largely brought about by structural inequality. By bringing both terms together, Fajardo engages in some kind of a catachresis, or an error in or abuse of language. It proves to be a productive one because it transposes the notion of “value” as emerging from a context and not foisted upon by a preconceived system that is regarded as always ascendant, fixed like an unchanging norm.
It is within this framework of aesthetics of poverty that a sharper reconsideration of “quality of life” is initiated. Because certain dichotomies are dissipated, the practice of art and the ties between art and society find a more fertile field of engagement. In this situation, poverty and survival, aesthetics and ethics, actual reality and the truth of seeing, and the range of artistic decisions are fleshed out on the ground, in relation to the exchange of agents and their respective interests.