The National Artist Award controversy that continues to spin out reminds me of an event in history with similar undertones — art under Adolf Hitler and the Nazis during the Third Reich.
Hitler and the Nazis were probably among the greatest art patrons of the twentieth century. Art under the Third Reich became an intrinsic part of political ideology that was pursued with great rabidity. The degree of Hitler’s interest (he had once aspired to be an artist) in the arts was not only intense but extremely detailed. For the exhibition of “great” German art in 1937, for example, he even personally looked through the over 15,000 submissions and threw out those he didn’t like in a rage.
What is reminiscent of this National Artist Award controversy is that the prerogative of Hitler as fuhrer and state “taste” trumped over those of German art curators at that time. In a bid to reinforce “true” German identity, the Nazis chose to patronize art that was similar to 19th century genre works of German painters. These were figurative, easily recognizable subject matters like showing the German peasant doing work in the fields or the superior Aryan race in assorted aspects of everyday life. It was an art for the masses — something that could be effortlessly understood.
While art for the masses was celebrated by the state and a Nazi newspaper sang “Are they not brothers — the artists and the soldiers?” German art curators on the other hand worked fervently to protect the art of their taste — modern art that had been flourishing in the country since World War I. Modern art was practically an enemy of the state as the Nazis swiftly began to execute a purge of modern works and prohibited artists from making modern art. Many of the modern artists fled Germany as the Nazis escalated in their intolerance. An exhibition of degenerate art was staged in 1937 where they hung modern works alongside art of the mentally ill in what can be seen as childishly poking fun at art they didn’t understand or simply couldn’t appreciate. Then in 1939, in a Berlin fire department exercise, thousands of works were burned as a “final solution” to these “degenerate” pieces.
Many artists and cultural workers of the modern movement from all over Europe fled to the United States as the Nazis spread their reach. Most landed in New York, which, in the aftermath of World War II, became the world’s bastion of modernism and progression, an identity it still champions to this day. As modern art triumphed and its legacy was engraved into the world’s art history, the “great” German art and the “art for the masses” heralded by the Nazis fell into shame and obscurity.
Art’s Elite Nature
Art should never be evaluated by how many people benefited or enjoyed the artist’s work (the argument of Carlo Caparas that he deserves the award more than others based on how many people he hired and how many have watched his movies). The elitist nature of art is an inevitable component of the art world. It is naturally only a few who first begin to appreciate art’s forerunners before it begins to enjoy broad acceptance. The elite here is not about moneyed persons but rather those who lead in recognizing and assigning artistic value. It is by their appreciation — spread through ways like writing, patronage and inclusion in projects — that gradually more people come to appreciate these works as well.
As a specialized field, however, there will always be things that a person outside the art world will not be able to instantly understand or begin to immediately appreciate. Art appreciation takes a fair bit of education or repeated exposure to art at the very least — a very difficult reality in a developing country. Many well-known figures of the art scene will always remain unknown to those with more pressing concerns. Yet, this does not mean that their art is of less substance than those who do art through commercial endeavors, which naturally has a wider reach, or those who spread art for educational purposes. Is this a popularity contest? A charity award? Or an award about the arts?
Artists and cultural workers who have been against the President’s choices have been slapped by their opposition with tags of elitism and anti-GMA sentiments. If being elitist means being able to recognize the value of something in one’s own expertise and trusting the process by which artists become artists by their field’s experts and colleagues, it is the way that the art world operates and should be respected, again, as a field of specialization, rather than criminalized as pure snobbery. One doesn’t become an artist respected, studied and admired by later generations of artists and the public simply by the President’s choice. The complex system which art operates in is suddenly undermined by the President’s whim.
The Palace keeps saying it’s within the President’s legal right to name whom she chooses. Is it legal? I’m not sure but I’m definitely sure it’s not right. The example of Hitler imposing his favored artists on the masses and the art world was a strong enough lesson that these things do not bode well in the long run. Yet, decades later, here is a President who is again not simply meddling but dictating in a cultural affair. In an article in Manila Bulletin last Aug. 26, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita kept reiterating the President’s authoritarian right, the emphasis of defense having shifted from the Honors Committee to the President’s absolute entitlement in the wake of the Supreme Court investigation: “The President is within her authority to make the final decision, especially as to who will be rewarded or who should not be rewarded”; “We believe in the primacy of the President’s authority as the one mandated by the law to be the one to make the final choice”; “The President has the final say on those that should be awarded.” The word “final” is another way of saying that the Palace is not able to adequately satisfy, at least to the art community, its exclusion and inclusions and so, like an embarrassed bully caught with its pants down, it starts throwing its weight around. This seems confirmed by the taunts of the National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA) chair Vilma Labrador, an ardent supporter of NCCA executive director Cecile Guidote-Alvarez around whom, upon being named National Artist for Theater while in office and serving as the Presidential adviser for culture and the arts, much of the controversy abounds. With the Supreme Court looking into the matter, Labrador suddenly declared, as reported in an Inquirer article last Aug. 29, that “The battle is over” — that the proclamation for National Artists was already signed July 6 and that critics could continue to wail all they want about it but that the matter was already a done deal.
This was also likewise declared in an announcement by the Office of the President last Wednesday, stating that the conferment cannot be overturned by the Supreme Court. More alarmingly come reports that National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera, who has been strongly opposing the President’s interference in the current controversy, is being monitored by military intelligence, inquiring and taking photos of his house in Quezon City. One of the spies was caught by village security and was identified by his Armed Forces ID as Corporal Hannival Guerrero.
The Honors Committee as merely an advisory body does not alleviate the dictatorial whiffs surrounding this controversy. It must also be emphasized that the persons in the Honors Committee are not qualified to advise on these matters unless they are in the arts and if they are, they should only be qualified to advise in the field of their specialization. A National Artist for Literature’s support for the nomination for a National Artist for Theater (as other articles reported) does not carry merit. A senator as one of the committee members giving his opinion about the nominations for an art award is also obviously lacking in being able to make an adequate judgment.
When the actual experts qualified to make the decision protest about the judgments of the Honors Committee and the President, some people have the arrogance to say they are simply anti-GMA and that they have their own interests in profiting from their own choices in mind. It needs to be spelled out that it doesn’t matter who the President is, it’s what she’s done. And least from these protesting minds is how they can profit from respecting the choices of the panels of experts who went through several exhausting months of deliberations to come up with their choices — only to have others imposed and one cast aside — all in the name of the “Presidential prerogative.”
The debate on the Presidential prerogative has been present since President Ramos inserted his own awardee and with every insertion thereafter. If there is such a furor now, it is because the blatant interference, the inclusion of four names and the dropping of one, riled up this debate to an astonishing extent that is completely warranted. Admittedly, the art community should have forced a solution to this issue in the first instance rather than waiting for a situation like this to happen to unify their call. Yet, suggesting that the issue is about disliking GMA and describing experts as elitist hacks who don’t recognize the significance of the inserted names’ bodies of work reek of desperation.
Regardless of what happens in the Supreme Court investigation, time, the ultimate arbiter of art, will weigh upon the inserted selections of the President, helped along by those who write the art history books and stage major retrospectives of those worthy of the honor. What is an award and title anyway if it is not respected by those in the field it is supposed to honor and even stains the life work that one has done? The money won’t last and medals are, in reality, simply an accessory. But to have one’s art recognized and appreciated, surpassing death and generations? That’s something to aspire for, with a designation or without one.