Via Manolo L. Quezon III
, I found and read this insightful piece over at Meat And Marginalia
: Notes On The 2009 National Artists Controversy
. An excerpt:
Contrary to statements that have been made deploring the “politicization” of the Order of National Artists (ONA), the ONA is, with or without the participation—or interference, perhaps—of Malacañang, always already political, woven inextricably into and constitutive of the very fabric of power relations of the art world. In any case, the President is not explicitly forbidden from making selections of her own—given that she is the head of state, and that the ONA is a state title, I do believe that she should have some control over the process, at least until a law is passed prohibiting her from doing so.
One need only look back three years ago, when Philippine Star columnist Alfred “Krip” A. Yuson, passive-aggressive beerhouse rhetorician extraordinaire, blasted the selection of Lumbera as National Artist over his bet, Cirilo F. Bautista, describing Lumbera as “the communist candidate” and “a second-tier citizen in the republic of arts and letters”, while disingenuously disclaiming that such assertions were in fact attacks. (Some of the responses to Yuson, of which my personal favorite is by Rosario Cruz Lucero, have been compiled in this blog entry by University of the Philippines professor Jose Wendell Capili.) In that same article, Yuson quotes Gémino H. Abad as saying that, had he been aware of the way the deliberations were going, he could have made a stronger case for Bautista. While it may well be that artists can make the most credible and authoritative judgments about their peers—a point that I do not necessarily agree with—the ONA is, in a sense, a glorified culturati cockfight, with each faction rallying behind and lobbying for its respective rooster. The art world is not a rarefied sphere of civility, courage, and goodness floating autonomously above the rest of society—artists are every bit as petty, as contentious, and as malicious as government officials.
The comments of Caroline S. Hau in Necessary Fictions, if limited to Philippine literature, are nevertheless illuminating, and her description of it as incestuous could tentatively be applied to the cultural scene as a whole:
The so-called literary scene in the Philippines is characteristically small, and although a number of literary biographies have been produced in recent years, the main form in which information circulates within that scene has been gossip, which is woven out of the threads of personal relations linking writers to writers, and writers to critics (who are often writers, too). It also means that writers pat each other on the back and give each other awards, and that younger writers get their chance and opportunities through the beneficence or patronage or praise of older, established writers. Come Choosing-the-Canon-Time, who else but their friends would these write-professors nominate?
…the Philippine literary scene resembles a hamlet patrolled by small, overlapping bands of writers who conduct their feuds and rituals, if not in full view, then at least within gossip’s range, of each other.
Therefore, Caparas has a point when he deplores the snobbery underpinning the criticism he has received as a result of being proclaimed National Artist. While Caparas is wrong to reduce the controversy to the classic—and ultimately unfruitful—oppositions between high culture and low culture, between fine art and popular art, and between the elite and the masa, the ONA is, by its very nature, elitist. Notions of honor, of prestige, of merit, and of taste are not free-floating, abstract, innocent, democratic concepts, but ones that cause the inclusion and legitimization of certain activities and phenomena at the expense of others, and with specific material effects over and above whatever honors and privileges come with any given award or title—effects that, I suspect, many National Artists would disavow. Consider, for instance, that the goal of many a serious collector of Philippine art is to own at least one work by every National Artist, which means that such works tend to fetch astronomical prices on the market. Even ephemera that were never intended to be exhibited or sold—e.g., sketches, studies, and memorabilia—can be very costly, particularly if the National Artist is already deceased. And what the National Artist cannot gain in monetary terms, he/she gains in terms of authority: his/her very presence and opinions are inevitably considered weightier and more significant than those of others.
I would like to underscore that even when the choice of National Artist is relatively uncontroversial, it is only because that artist is acceptable to a broad consensus of the artistic community, which is hardly representative of the Philippines as a whole. In a country where over nine million families recently rated themselves as poor, I doubt if art exists in the lives of the majority at all, and yet it is this same majority from whose pockets the ONA is funded. Do our National Artists truly belong to and engage with the public, or do they merely delineate a self-contained, masturbatory economy exclusive to the cultural cognoscenti? (I think it fair to ask, for example, where our National Artists for Literature were when the Department of Finance levied a tax on books earlier this year.)
Lest I be branded a cynic—or worse, an apologist for Caparas—what I have been trying to do here is to lay bare the tensions roiling beneath the surface of what may seem to be a fairly simple dispute over protocol and transparency.
If, as UP professor and Star columnist Butch Dalisay asserts, “no true artist needs an award, especially one granted by a government whose credibility and sincerity many artists will or should find trouble with“, then I have to ask why the artistic community bothers with the ONA in the first place? That Dalisay resorts to a romantic idealization of the ONA is, to my mind, rather disingenuous: “The National Artist Award was meant to rise above petty politics, to give some material recognition and sustenance for our most creative and most productive imaginations—a vain hope, as it turns out, in this politically besotted and benighted country.” If the ONA has now been corrupted, as many protestors allege, then why did the National Artists stop at a symbolic burial of their medallions? Wouldn’t the truly meaningful gesture be to relinquish their titles, return their medallions, and give up whatever privileges the ONA accorded them? Or why not set up a private award-giving body to confer the National Artist Award? Doesn’t the Manila Critics Circle give out National Book Award?
to read the whole blog entry.