Thursday, August 13, 2009

ABOLISH THE PHILIPPINE NATIONAL ARTISTS AWARD: A EULOGY ON ITS DEATH OR DYING

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There was a lot of dying to do in August during my holiday in the Philippines.

Philippine heroine and former President Corazon C. Aquino succumbed to colon cancer August 1. The grief and nation-wide angst over her demise just about obscured another death or dying --- that of the National Artist Award, a presidential recognition for Filipino artists who have distinguished themselves as assets of Philippine culture and patrimony. We will not even mention those who died in the landslides and floods triggered by yet another typhoon pummelling this archipelago in the season of the storms. Drowning of kids in fetid, bloated esteros and murky rivers around Manila and its environs excite scant column inches in the papers and desultory sound bites on broadcast media. Insurgency in Mindanao rounds up the death count with citizens, soldiers, and rebels snuffed out in the hands of territorial wars. Dying is de rigueur here.

“At a ‘necrological service’ for the award (National Artist Award)---a protest action held yesterday afternoon (August 7)---four National Artists ‘buried’ their gold medallions to protest what they said was a mockery of the recognition given to exceptional Filipino artists,” a daily, Philippine Daily Inquirer, reported.

The kerfuffle resulted from President Gloria Arroyo’s appointment of a film director and “funnies" writer Carlo J. Caparas and National Commission on Culture and the Arts executive director and stage and theatre artist Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, who runs the recommending body for the awards. Their appointment did not go through the nomination process of the joint recommendatory boards of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines and the NCCA. Nothing, however, in the process precluded the President from appointing her own nominees.

“We want to show our disgust. We will not use our medallion until the issue is settled,” National Artist for Literature awardee, poet Virgilio Almario told the Inquirer.

“It‘s really frustrating how some people like (Mrs. Arroyo) disregard the real essence of the award,” Bienvenido Lumbera, another awardee for literature, protested.

National Artists for Visual Arts Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera and Arturo Luz also laid their medallions to rest in a symbolic funeral ceremony in front of the CCP in Pasay City. National Artists (for Sculpture) Napoleon Abueva, (for Cinema Arts ) Salvador Bernal and Eddie Romero were “also in attendance” according to the paper.Novelist and National Artist for Literature Francisco Sionil Jose was among the leaders of the protest who lambasted President Arroyo’s exercise of her prerogative.

They all heaped umbrage on Caparas’ and Alvarez’s nomination. In the process of lambasting President Arroyo for her choices, they also attacked the awardees -- Caparas as not up to par and Alvarez’s as “inappropriate” or without “delicadeza” (sensitivity to niceties), simply crass.

None of the protesting awardees, however, returned their medals, a hundred-thousand-peso lump sum award, or waived a 24,000-peso monthly pension, health benefits, and ceremonial place of honour prerogatives in state functions. A genuinely no-holds-barred grand gesture of dumping the award altogether, a surrender of these perquisites was the logical conclusion of their loss of faith and disgust over the Presidential “mockery” of the process of selecting awardees. A symbolic funeral for the awards sufficed for the “insulted” National Artists. Some branded it as a theatrical “palabas” (show or spectacle). Former Censor Board chief Manuel Morato alluded to this as “so much falsehood, insincerity, and hypocrisy have infected our culture…it is indicative of the culture of hatred that is so embedded in our society today,” Morato said in the course of lamenting the violent reactions to the President’s awards of the title to his friends Carlo J. Caparas and Cecile Alvarez, the paper reported.

Caparas, who said he did not ask for the award, called a press conference and labelled his critics as “elitist”, and his wife said “if you don’t belong to their cliques, you are declared unqualified.” The issue cracked a wide chasm between the “elitist” and the popular “mass” artists, and exposed an essential flaw in the awards. Critic Lumbera invokes the sanctity of the “real essence of the awards” as a source of frustration, disgust, and insult. Is not the award a recognition of artistic achievement whether it is “high brow” or “low brow” art as long as they are a contribution to the national patrimony and cultural heritage? Are these critics prepared to denounce popular art (like stage burlesque, soap operas, exportable scenery paintings of the Ermita Impressionists) as flotsam and therefore not contributory to national culture? Is Dolphy not an artist on his own? What about the late Chichay and Tolindoy, Pogo and Togo, et al as stand-up comics of pre-and-post-war years?

Alvarez said she did not have anything to do with her selection. A pioneer in educational theatre, she is deemed in various artistic quarters as eminently qualified, but why did she have to be appointed to the order outside of the normal process? The NCCA chairman, Dr. Vilma Labrador, said President Arroyo was attentive to Alvarez’s “lifetime dedication to the arts … in leading the movement for a national theatre and its development to forge our cultural identity and preserve our heritage.”

Who is an artist? If he comes from the disparate regions and not Manila-based, what are his chances of being considered for the title? Is he a fine artist or an artisan? What has he contributed to the culture of the nation? Who will pass judgment on his particular art? Is there a standard state yardstick for what a national artist must be? Will this not delimit the universe of celebration of the creative artist who must hew close to “national aspirations” as opposed to free expression and creative imagination? Why must there be a national artist, but not a national teacher, scientist, biologist, pharmacist, farmer, businessman, overseas worker, salesman, or call-centre expert? Reductio ad absurdum, it is pretentious, superfluous, and discriminatory to recognize only the national artist.

If the awards are calculated to compensate the artists for their work, why not create a National Arts Council that would determine the subsidy for the artist’s work. That is a more substantial recognition of his work than any photo-op award or medallion. That guarantees continued production of art as part of the stockpiling of treasures that form part of the nation’s cultural heritage. Otherwise, the artist will be pigeonholed as destitute and deserving of a pension to continue supporting him throughout his lifetime. Why limit it to artists? Are there no other contributors to culture who deserve the financial support?

It is just as well that the protest took the form of a funeral and necrological tableau. Let the National Artist Award die this ignominious death.

When it was first conceived during the rule of deposed President Ferdinand Marcos, its exponent, Mrs. Imelda Marcos, saw it as a manner of getting the art community behind the Marcos regime. Then Presidential Strategic Services Institute director, the late Adrian E. Cristobal, saw it as an opportunity to recognize Philippine artists, some of them expatriates like Jose Garcia Villa. A noisy critic of the Marcos regime, the late lamented writer Nick Joaquin was a hesitant awardee who saw it as a chance to create leverage for petitioning the martial law government to free incarcerated writers and journalists.

Hatched in one of those Cristobal-led meetings of artists and intellectuals in the 70s, the award offered a P75.000 prize for the winning artist, a medal, and a chance to grace all state functions as an honoured guest. In one of these meetings at the Solidaridad Bookshop of author and now National Artist Francisco Sionil Jose, Joaquin said he might consider to receive the award if the martial law government would release political prisoners like poet and journalist Jose F. Lacaba, imprisoned for vitriolic articles in the Philippines Free Press against the Marcos regime.

Throughout the subsequent years, the Award metamorphosed into a pension fund for the awardees who would then consider themselves beholden to the leader who appointed them.

Because there was money behind the award, it became a sought-after award; lobbying for it became a game of chance for whoever felt like an entitled artist. (What would prevent graffiti artists to lay claim?) Cliques of artists considered others outside of the ambit of the award. Those in the academic circles felt those practising their art in the “market” (Ermita art shops, script writers, commercial movie directors, fashion designers) were not of the same league as they were who preen in the ivory towers of the academe. Academics doubled as cushioned poets, novelists, and avant-garde authors whose works got published by their university publishing houses. They provided for their own health benefits and pension funds. Meanwhile, those in the “palengke” had to scrounge to please the bakya (wooden clogs) crowd to support their popularized by-products.

Hence, Carlo Caparas cannot be an “artist” within the ambit of the National Artist Award, if Virgilo Almario and Bienvenido Lumbera were consulted. Who has the right and the imprimatur to determine who is a qualified artist who might compete for the awards? Dare other artists do that? When did art hew only to the line of the Parnassian? What is so base about the artistic aspirations of massmen or the great unwashed? What is art for, but also for those among the benighted that they may edify their small lives in the slums of unforgiving poverty? Arts gratia artis (art for art’s sake) died with Aristotle, Cervantes, and Shakespeare and the authentic artists who lifted their audience from the depths of ignorance to the light of celebration. Art is for all men. Art will be democratic, like it or not. "Let the artist beware" is his own caveat in a world of diminished sensitivity.

Davao City Writers’ Guild president, poet, and university professor Ricardo de Ungria wrote the NCCA and CCP a comprehensive set of proposals to improve the selection process and policies of the National Artist Award last May 2009 to forestall the looming disrepute and disenchantment over the awards. His suggestions were not acted upon. Author Jose Dalisay, Jr. said in his Penman blog, had the NCCA and CCP acted on de Ungria’s suggestions, the imbroglio that has become the “other death” in tandem with Corazon Aquino’s would not have happened.

Artists as contributors to a distinct patrimonial, cultural heritage deserve to be honoured. The country’s now moribund Republic Heritage Award would have been a better vehicle for this award. Artists are not the only contributors to a heritage worth living in the Philippines for – there are as many sectors as there are Filipinos who believe that greatness abides in this nation. If heroes have to be “emulated” by the restive populace, a system of recognition could be developed by the Philippine Government that is free of partisanship, political opportunism, and spurious image building. The Filipino as a hero in his homeland need not be a puffed-up “bayaning huwad” (fake hero) na karaniwa’y hubad” (often stripped of value). The Filipino as hero is a paradigm of Citizen Juan de la Cruz, but not at the expense of authenticity.

Leave the artists to carve their own monuments among the people. No Government award can do that. If Caparas’ komiks and movies are more cogent communicators of Philippine culture and values, they will be supported by art’s consumers, the masa, the Philippine everyman. The authentic culture of a people is what they develop and live by. Neither Presidential award nor isolated artistic persuasion (artistic cliques, salon artistry, boutique and haute couture, ad nauseam) can beget this. Besides, awards for those who strive to create beauty in their souls are nothing but craven vanities -- a refuge of the shallow and vacuous poseurs who strive for the wind -- vanity of vanities. Art remains as the artist’s life blood. Awards or none.

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