Friday, August 28, 2009

Who is a National Artist?

We are truly a nation that prides itself in giving awards or titles for any reason. The present controversy regarding the selection of our country’s National Artists for 2009 is just one of these awards that have become almost as meaningless as Miss Philippines or Miss Manila.

At least for Manny Pacquiao, to be regarded as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world is more significant because he earned it fighting in the ring. So, why don’t we bestow a lifetime recognition award in honour of Pacquiao as our National Pugilist? Or perhaps, a National Leader for best-president-of-the-country-ever? Who would like to nominate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo? Or perhaps her husband Mike Arroyo as National for-Better-or-Worse Partner?

Even the highest court of the land has joined the fun. The National Artist titles would have been conferred were it not for the intervention of the Philippine Supreme Court which ordered Malacanang to stop the awards until it has ruled on the dispute. At the heart of the dispute is whether President Macapagal-Arroyo disregarded the selection process prescribed by law.

It is now a legal issue and less about the artistic body of work that the conferees represent to entitle them to the recognition of National Artist. This is really the saddest chapter in our history when the highest court is asked to referee a dispute about our country’s culture that is in a calamity, as one local writer would call it.

It may be worthwhile to refresh ourselves with the history of the National Artist Award.

The award was first conferred by Ferdinand Marcos on Fernando Amorsolo four days after the latter died on April 26, 1972. Five months later, Marcos would declare martial law that would keep him president for almost twenty years.

Artists and writers were important to the Marcoses as they would memorialize them in writing, painting, music, dance and other art genres.

The New Society needed artists to depict the Marcos dictatorship in a gentler and kinder light. So, in exchange for a cheque for ten thousand pesos, a monthly stipend of two thousand pesos during the life of the artist, and an official funeral fully paid by the government, the National Artists chosen didn’t mind being prostituted and bastardized by the Marcos regime. The cash award has gone up to one hundred thousand pesos and medical and hospitalization benefits are added to the monthly life pension. Not bad if you were a starving artist.

National awards for artists are common in other countries, too. But these are national competitions, much more like the Oscars or FAMAS awards.

Artists, if they turn out to be the best in their field, don’t need to be recognized as National Artists. Their works speak volumes for themselves. Van Gogh was never recognized as his country’s National Artist. The same with Claude Monet, Renoir or Gauguin. Or Winslow Homer, Jasper Johns or Jason Pollock. Or Maria Callas or Luciano Pavarotti.

Why do we have to elevate our artists by decree?

The guidelines for the selection of the National Artists of the Philippines state that the recipients should “have made significant contributions to the cultural heritage of our country.” Doesn’t the work of all great artists enrich our cultural heritage?

That the artist’s work is an “an artistic accomplishment at the highest level” and that it promotes “creative expression as significant to the development of a national cultural identity.” Is this not much different from the previous sentence?

Even the guidelines are so muddled and so repetitive as to confuse those who select the artists for the award.

One criterion for selection states that the award shall be given to “artists who, through the content and form of their works, have contributed in building a Filipino sense of nationhood.” How does a painting or piece of music contribute in building a Filipino sense of nationhood? This is purely subjective, which is what art really is. That’s why awards in other countries are given in competitions. An artist’s work is compared with the work of other artists. One’s work rises to the top in relation to others. A body of work is not simply recognized because it has more Filipino landscapes or the music reminds one of the kundiman or the dance reminds of the Tinikling or Ati-atihan.

The Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP) has criticized the government’s selection of artists for the National Artist awards as a reflection of a longstanding severe crisis in Philippine culture and the arts. This is apparent in the present government’s commercialization of native and minority cultures and customs for the sake of promoting foreign tourism in the country. The Arroyo administration has also brazenly suppressed freedom of expression by censoring numerous films with social commentary, yet allowing films that promote pornography.

If a National Artist is measured by his or her contribution to nationhood-building, then every artist will fail this test. The artist’s work is first and foremost the product of a creative imagination, devoid of politics but not necessarily of social consciousness or empathy with social malaise. It is loyalty to the art form that drives artists to create, not their alliances or allegiances to political parties or platforms.

It was the primary purpose of the New Society under Ferdinand Marcos to enslave the artists to its sense of nationhood, to make artists surrender their creativity and imagination to the goals of the New Society. Evidently, the yardstick for selecting the National Artist has not changed.

Can anyone, therefore, fully blame Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for her choice of artists who will best portray her notion of culture and the arts?

No comments: