National artists and art community protest dagdag-bawas

in the selection of the 2009 National Artist Awards




August 7, 2009



National Artists Bien Lumbera at the NCAA Pinoy Weekly video of the protest picket

Photos courtesy of Digna Magtigilca and Soliman Santos of Pinoy Weekly
    National Artist Eddie Romero UP professors Roselle Pineda and Norma Respicio


The National Artist Awards Fiasco
(Phil. Graphic, August 17, 2009)
by Krip Yuson

A fiasco it was, for sure. And now it threatens to go beyond being just another briefly incendiary brouhaha over an award. After all, it involves the most prestigious state honor for a Filipino artist.

On Friday, August 7, eight National Artists -- Billy Abueva, Arturo Luz and Bencab for Visual Arts, Eddie Romero for Film, Salvador "Badong" Bernal for Theater Design, and writers Frankie Sionil Jose, Rio Almario and Bien Lumbera -- led a congregation of artists and art lovers of all stripes in a protest demonstration that began at the ramp of the Cultural Center of the Philippines and climaxed at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) building at Intramuros.

Billed as a necrological service for the National Artist awards, it featured statements, poetry, musical numbers and other performance activities that excoriated and mocked the Malacanang announcement of the 2009 set of seven new National Artists.

Sympathetic and/or affected members of the CCP board of directors joined the gathering, which eventually reconvened at Plaza Roma, from where a "procession" was conducted until the "delivery" of a symbolic wreath at the very doorstep of the NCCA.

The message was simple: the awards had been dealt a deathblow by the powers-that-be. Why? Because a "dagdag-bawas" operation was conducted, with the four original names submitted to the President by the joint CCP-NCCA boards gaining an addition of four others by presidential fiat, while losing one.

Let us be clear here in explaining the nature of the outrage that followed. While the National Artist awards were instituted in the Marcos era, when the honorees were simply chosen by then First Lady Imelda Marcos and her advisors, they have since been subjected to a less whimsical process that starts with the acceptance of nominations from artists' groups, rigorous screening, and at least two rounds of deliberations among separate committees dealing with each of the classical cum modern seven arts: Music, Literature, Visual Arts, Theater, Dance, Architecture and Film.

Much of the evolution of this process was undertaken by the NCCA when it was headed by Dr. Jaime Laya as Chair and Virgilio Almario as Executive Director.

As CCP board director Atty. Lorna Kapunan has pointed out, the IRR or Implementing Rules and Regulations that have expounded on the presidential decree creating the awards say that the final list of nominees selected by the joint CCP-NCCA boards, inclusive of living National Artists who care to join the process, is submitted to the President, who is expected to
simply approve of the list in a ministerial capacity.

But other lawyers and government bureaucrats maintain that it remains the President's privilege as to whom exactly to declare as National Artist. Recent tradition has had it however that the President respects the final list submitted, now every three years.

President Fidel V. Ramos saw fit to add one name to the list, that of Carlos Quirino, for a spin-off category specified as Historical Literature. Well, it was still Literature, for all intents and purposes. And there wasn't much of a howl.

Taking their cue from that precedent, both Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo have since added a name to the sets of final nominees that landed on their desks. These names did not undergo the screening process. They were slightly mocked as "DNA" or "Dagdag National Artists."

But never had a final nominee been dropped from the list submitted to the President. This time, the unthinkable or unprecedented happened. Dr Ramon Pagayon Santos, the expected awardee for Music, a category that has never been absent from past conferments of the awards, was stricken off. In his stead, four dagdag names were declared, all of whom had either not undergone the process, or did but failed to make the grade.

Apart from Jose "Pitoy" Moreno for Fashion Design, a new category institutionalized by the selection boards in a questionable development a few years ago, and Fernando Mañosa for Architecture, what drew instant flak was the inclusion of Cecile Guidote Alvarez for Theater and Carlo J. Caparas for Visual Arts and Film.

The arts and culture community was aghast over the lack of delicadeza as well as the conflict-of-interest situation obtaining in Alvarez' case. After all, as the Executive Director of the NCCA, she is supposed to help shepherd everyone involved in the deliberations. She also happens to be the Presidential Adviser on Culture.

Shock and eows! greeted the inclusion of Caparas. Artists involved in both of the genres that were hyphenated for his multi-tasking category were quick to denounce his selection. Not only was he generally seen as, well, baduy, if a commercially successful pop-culture artist, but that he did not even illustrate the comic book narratives he had popularized. So how
could he win half the award as a visual artist? As for his cinema credits, well, his claim to fame was the cottage-industry production (together with life partner Donna Villa) of "massacre" movies.

It appeared particularly grating for the cineaste community to accept the fact that Caparas would now claim the same honor, on the same year at that, as Manuel Conde, who's acknowledged as a pioneering film great.

Now, how did all this happen? Fingers naturally point to Cecile Alvarez, who is now accused of having orchestrated the entire shebang, much to the detriment of the President who is believed not to have known better than to trust her culture adviser's "ministrations."

Weeks before the Palace declaration, but soon after the submission of the original four names by the CCP, talk already had it that Alvarez was onto her "lobbying tricks" again, that having succeeded in organizing letter-writing brigades in the past to get her favorite buddy-artists in
as "DNAs," she had the same method employed, this time for her own particular benefit.

Worse, as it is speculated quite understandably, I daresay rather credibly, she must have felt secure that the President would name her a "DNA," but expected a possible firestorm over it, so that she sought to reduce the focus on her by bringing along three others as "DNAs." After
all, as the story goes from within the circles that were in on the process from the start, she had actually pressed for those three during the first two rounds of vetting conducted by her own NCCA. But that none of the three made it.

Well, now they have. And the firestorm that was being avoided became a conflagration of anger, contempt and ridicule instead.

Lost in the tumult is the inexplicable deletion of Dr. Santos from what became the official list. A highly regarded composer, conductor, scholar, writer, and world cultural leader, Ramon Santos is an exalted University Professor Emeritus with the Composition and Theory Department of the College of Music, UP- Diliman, and is also Executive Director of the UP
Center for Ethnomusicology.

His impressive CV states: "He has forged fresh directions in Filipino creative music and explored new theories in the performing arts. His works reflect the aesthetics, ideas and practices of traditional Filipino culture, which have been recreated using modern forms of expression and performed in modern settings and social environments. Furthermore, his compositions are ground-breaking, espousing the Asianization of Philippine art, through integration and use of mixed media-music, dance, theater, poetry, visual elements, and space, as well as the incorporation of ideas about nature and the metaphysical universe."

He holds innumerable distinctions, many of them international, as he has had his music performed as well as delivered papers in conferences in many capitals of the world. He has authored books on music and composers, one of which won the National Book Award in 2006. He has been an artist-in-residence at both the Bellagio Study Center and the Civitella
Ranieri Center in Italy, and recently enjoyed an Asian Public Intellectual Senior Fellowship.

Alas, talk has it that he was singled out to be dropped because he had a rift many years ago with a former UP Diliman personality who happens to be the sister of one of the new DNAs, and who is supposed to be "palsy-walsy" with the Presidential Adviser on Culture.

Hmm, maybe that's really how the worm turns in our often closed, sometimes incestuous milieu. Finally, it's also said that Alvarez may deserve the honor for her early accomplishments in theater, but that she could have waited it out until after she was no longer NCCA Executive Director.

Unfortunately for the President, the controversy follows right on the heels of, and is seen as being parallel to, her Executive Secretary's request to the Judicial Bar Council to expand its selected nominees for two vacancies in the Supreme Court. The JBC has stood its ground, on firm legal grounds.

Would that the CCP if not the CCP-NCCA boards also stand their ground and ask the President to reconsider and recall the dagdag-bawas operation on the National Artist awards, some yet hopeful culturati now ask.

As it is, the text jokes spawned by the needless controversy reek of palpable malice and utter contempt. "NEWS FLASH!" said one the other week. "Malacanang has withdrawn Carlo Caparas and Cecile Alvarez from d list of National Artists, due to public protests. HOWEVER, GMA ASKED D JBC TO INCLUDE THEM IN D LIST FOR SUPREME COURT JUSTICES." Mwahaha!

Methinks however that the perceived baddies involved will simply brazen it out. Perhaps an art group that attended the Friday necro rites has adopted the right stance to take, along the hallowed principle of "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." The young people passed around a flyer seeking to nominate Dr. Hayden Kho as National Artist for Video Art.

National Artist F. Sionil Jose
National artists Virgilio Arlmario and Salvador Bernal
National Artists Bien Lumbera and UP Dean Roland Tolentino (left)
Gemino Abad
Director Joel Lamangan
Directors Laurice Guillen and Actor Johnny Delgado
Nanding Josef
 Krips Yuson (left) and  Gemino Abad
National Artists Director Behn Cervantes Malou de Guzman and Karina Bolasco
    Bituin Escalante


Saturday, August 08, 2009 Manila Times
By Elmer A. Ordoñez

The politics of The  National Artist Awards

At this writing, outraged National Artists including F. Sionil Jose, Bien Lumbera, Virgilio Almario, Salvador Bernal, Benjamin “Bencab,” fellow artists and cultural workers plan to hold August 7 a demonstration called “R.I.P” in protest of the “dagdag-bawas” in the choice of this year’s National Artist Awards.

The National Artist (NA) Awards are much coveted by writers and artists not only for the recognition but also for benefits including hospitalization and pension, and the honor of being given (upon death) a state funeral and burial at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani. At cultural functions, their presence is announced.

Nowadays National Artists for Literature are not obliged to write a poem to celebrate an occasion—as the poet laureates were tasked. During martial law some National Artists were commissioned to do murals or paintings or write music for the edification of the Palace. Some—the true believers—obliged but at least one, a painter, felt he was being forced to do something against his nature.

In medieval times the retinue of the king or queen includes court entertainers who were versed in the performing arts. Some called them court jesters. Court literature, art, drama and music were produced for the glorification of the ruling aristocracy. The 14th century Italian sonneteer Petrarch is said to be the first poet laureate. In England it was John Dryden in the 17th century. Poet laureates are still appointed in western countries.

Well-known artists not necessarily poet laureates perform at commemorative events. Poet Robert Frost was invited to read a poem at President Kennedy’s inaugural in 1961; so was contralto Marian Anderson to sing in the same event. Elton John wrote and sang “Candle in the Wind” at the wake of Princess Diane in 1997.

There was a time when artists like musicians had their meals together with the servants. In time their status improved in society. State patronage of the arts and letters has led to cooptation. Private patrons seek allies among artists who tend to assimilate the ideology of their rich sponsors. But lately, a few National Artists have manifested their independence from the establishment.

Direct appointment of National Artists by the Palace was the practice starting 1972. The process of selection was informal until the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) were tasked to conduct the selection.

Lack of funding has been invoked for limiting the choices, leaving out deserving ones. Awards for living artists give way to posthumous ones which cost less. This time the subsidy for the four additional NAs should be provided by the immovable Palace which can well afford to restore composer Ramon Santos in the original NCCA/CCP short list of four.

Controversy marked the awarding by President Ramos of Carlos Quirino for “historical writing” which like philosophy was considered literature in the 18th century until the Romantics limited the genre to “creative writing.” This delimitation of literature is debatable in itself. The other “controversial” award is that of Alejandro Roces (fiction writer/humorist/playwright) because he was named by President Arroyo. For those who know his literary achievement Roces deserves the award.

The first National Artists awards were posthumous, like those of Fernando Amorsolo for painting, and Amado V. Hernandez, for literature. But as UP president Salvador Lopez said, Hernandez was given the award when he was “safely dead.” Would the martial law regime have awarded him he were alive then? Or would he have accepted the award from a dictator? Nick Joaquin set a precondition for accepting the award: the release of poet/activist Pete Lacaba from prison.

Some note that this year’s awardees do not include a “social realist” in the visual arts like Onib Olmeida nor Teatrong Mulat playwright/director Amelia Lapena Bonifacio who has pioneered and won international honors in children’s puppet theater. The NA list includes one who is reportedly not the illustrator of his komiks—in a genre seen as both visual art and literature by post-modern criteria. He got the award for visual art and film. But protesting NAs see no merit in his “massacre” films.

A problem in the NA controversy is that we may still have illusions about the awards given the history of these honors bestowed on a select few who had been in the service of the state or were expected to be aligned with the state. There is also the reality of lobbying and subjective choices by judges.

Perhaps another mode of selection, untainted by patronage politics, can be devised in a National Academy of Arts and Letters not attached to the president’s office and composed of independent-minded artists, scholars, critics and intellectuals whose choice of awardees will not need the imprimatur of the Palace. If at all the latter performs a purely ministerial function. But as things stand, one cannot be too sanguine about this idea.


UP Faculty Regent JUdy Taguiwalo and Dean Roland Tolentino

Danny Javier of Apo Hiking Society