The National Artist Awards
(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
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
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
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
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
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.