Monday, August 3, 2009

National Artists of Honor

I was trying to make sense out of the latest tragedy that has befallen the artistic community after it suffered, yet again, another blow when Malacanang, in its darkest bowel form, named its three proteges to the honor of National Artist, now officially named Order of National Artists.

The announcement of the latest batch of National Artists is normally less controversial because, normally, only the hallmarks of excellence in an artist’s craft—excluding producing violent komiks and films and society couture—are carefully considered. But in abnormal situations such as the one we are having right now, even the mention of an awardee’s name provokes fire, especially if that awardee has been nominated but rejected twice for two different categories. But thanks to that awardee’s persistent patron saint in Pasig, now he can finally bring him home his beautiful trophy, courtesy of a fellow National Artist, his medical and life insurance (assuming he is still insurable), and a sweet smile for the rare honor of a state funeral (if that is something to smile sweetly for).

As Bienvenido Lumbera, National Artist for Literature and chair of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, confirmed in media reports, only four names have been submitted to Malacanang for approval, and certainly not for insertion: Manuel Urbano a.k.a. Manuel Conde (posthumous, film and broadcast arts); Federico Aguilar Alcuaz (visual arts, paintings, sculpture and mixed media); Lazaro Francisco (posthumous, literature); and Dr. Ramon Santos (music).

But Malacanang did what it was famous doing best: it did a Garci, in the spirit of the forthcoming elections. So now, we have the -1, +4 formula: it omitted Santos, and added Cecille Alvarez (theater), Magno Jose Carlo Caparas (visual arts and film), Francisco Manosa (architecture), and Jose Moreno (fashion design). This brings a total of not one but four insertions, very much like the fund appropriation for the road that traverses the property of a senator who wants to become the next president. On this note, Malacanang just bested Villar's best record of two. So who did the Garci? I have a suspect but as it is . . . a suspect. Perhaps we can share details through our private inbox here.

Caparas and Alvarez incurred public ire with almost the same degree by virtue of them being both close to Malacanang and having the same guts to leave decency aside for the sake of an honor that they don’t rightfully deserve. But it would be unfair to artists close Malacanang not to be conferred such an honor, right?

Caparas has been nominated and rejected twice—first for literature and second for visual arts—both acts of which we can rightfully construe as failed attempts by the same cabal of ignoramuses inspired by their equally moronic patron whose cerebral wavelength is as short as her frame. But Caparas’ dogged determination and audacity (of hopelessness) proves much more powerful than basic decency and delicadeza could even muster together.

On the other hand, Alvarez could have done better by choosing to be honorable enough to decline the nomination by virtue of a rule that bars members, officers, employees and staff of CCP and NCCA from being nominated. She is the executive director of the NCCA, whose duty among other functions includes receiving the names of the shortlisted candidates. Delicadeza? What the hell is that?

Alvarez defended her nomination by rattling off her previous awards, awards that her patron convinced were worth enough for her insertion. Surely, she had her fair share of artistic endeavors that brought her, her family and her country some good and these might have enriched her ‘body of work.’ Yet, wisdom would tell her to wait, as the time is not yet right. Yet it happened; she was named. There must be a higher wisdom that guided Malacanang’s insertion of Alvarez, Caparas and Moreno into the list with a sense of an urgency beyond reproach. This higher wisdom must have eluded the highly respected peers of Alvarez, Caparas and Moreno in counting them off from the final list of four. Whew! Higher bullshit is now the new higher wisdom!

While there is really nothing new about presidential insertions in the honorable roster of National Artists, the latest act by Arroyo’s minions—with her divine imprimatur, of course—effectively rewrites the rule and history of the Order of National Artists, a welcome change for those who could not make the cut. During the administrations of Ramos and Estrada, they made one insertions each on the list of candidates chosen and endorsed by their peers in the artistic community. Arroyo, ever the ebullient, feisty politico she has become in her almost two terms of office, is certainly in for breaking records: she inserted three. Now, that’s hard to beat.

The choice and endorsement by peers is not something to be taken against the person who usually makes the final choice—the president. Not that presidents know nothing about art, or that art such as poetry is far less exciting than pork, a presidential favorite and the official congressional diet especially these days when senators and congressmen are preparing themselves for 2010. Rather, this choice of and by peers ensures that those who are inducted into the so-called ‘academy’ are only those who have way, way satisfied the standards they themselves set, i.e. the hallmarks of excellence in their craft. For this purpose, we don’t have any need for a NCCA chairman or executive director who doesn’t understand, much more appreciate, the artistic milieu of our artists and cultural visionaries. And most certainly, we despise the guts of those whose sense of accomplishment, self-righteousness and self-importance could not even stand a preliminary selection process, if it were to undergo one.

We may ask if there's a way to restore honor in this process. Yes, there is. And I can only think of the most difficult yet the best solution to this. If the four stooges will cling on to their tainted honor, then the three should refuse to accept theirs. The challenge is now on the side of the right and reasonable. It is difficult, yes, but it is not impossible.

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