writings, projects and exhibitions of Clarissa Chikiamco

Monday, April 19, 2010

National Artist Award: When 'Experts' Weigh In

Below is the first of two articles I wrote in August of last year when the whole National Artist Award controversy exploded. It still seems timely to post it in my blog at the moment when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) just last month replaced board members in the National Museum and the Cultural Center of the Philippines shortly before the Philippine Presidential elections take place next month.

Link to the article in the Philippine Star website.

National Artist Award: When 'Experts' Weigh In

Art and film e-groups are a-buzzing about the latest declaration of the National Artist Award. With the tag “dagdag-bawas,” the National Artist Award, supposedly the most eminent award bestowed upon a Filipino artist, is yet again stained by the politics of its selection. As of press time, a symbolic protest, a necrological service for the National Artist Award, was going to be held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

The issue most plaguing the National Artist Award is that it allows the Philippine President to bypass the lengthy selection process done by panels on CCP and NCCA to confer the National Artist Award on a person of his or her choosing. That this option should even exist is absurd. This presidential prerogative needs to be axed for it ridicules the artists the award seeks to honor and all of us who work in the arts community.

To make it seem that the final selections of the president are legitimate, there was a supposed “honors” committee that made nominations (asides from those provided by CCP and NCCA), deliberated and confirmed the selections. Yet, the two questions many of us have been asking are who the people in the honors committee are and exactly what are their art credentials? Is MalacaƱang ever going to release their names? Or is the President’s office too afraid that once the members of the honors committee are made transparent, the indefensible way names to the Awards were dropped and added will be exposed? If the members of the panel are art experts, they should not fear in immediately releasing the full list and who recommended whom.

The political nature of the award is even made more evident by bestowing it upon Cecile Guidote Alvarez, the current presidential adviser on culture and executive director of the NCCA. An article in another paper cited the Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita as defending the conferment of the title on Alvarez, saying, “She didn’t deliberate on herself. We have the honors committee that does that. It does not disqualify her. She was chosen, and Cecille Guidote has been active in theater even before she got married to (Presidential Adviser on Climate Change and former Senator) Heherson Alvarez. She’s a student of Fr. (James) Reuter. She’s really good.”

The National Artists Award guidelines in September 2007 in the NCCA website says that “NCCA and CCP Board members and consultants and NCCA and CCP officers and staff are automatically disqualified from being nominated.” Yet, as we have seen, the loophole is that one can simply be selected by the President to bypass that nomination process. Alvarez may have built many performing arts organizations but the conferment of the title upon her while she holds office is a blatant conflict of interest. Also, the award for theater is conferred for direction, performance and/or production design. So future articles and statements supposedly defending Alvarez’s conferment should focus on these aspects of her contribution to theater rather than on her founding of programs or organizations.

NCCA chair and Education Undersecretary Vilma Labrador dared to say that critics should not put any “political color” in the award and even managed to insult those in CCP-NCCA who put together their list of recommendations by saying, “Sometimes there are people who simply ignore the credentials or greatness of some persons because of some personal agenda... If there will be another group to look at the credentials, there is a balance, there is validation.” With the amount of e-mails that have been flooding e-groups and the articles in the news these days with howls of protest, it is evident that there isn’t a balance but an obvious disparity. There certainly seems to be no validation either by the arts community for Alvarez or Carlos Caparas, the other recently named National Artist who the arts community is protesting against. And as for the personal agenda Labrador mentions, is the honors committee or the President actually free from this? For surely there was a reason that Ramon Santos was dropped as National Artist for music. Or was it a matter of other people thinking that their expertise trumped those of the panel of experts that endorsed Santos?

Labrador has defended that the current awardees fit the criteria for National Artist. Yet Labrador’s own field of specialization isn’t in the arts at all but in education, which does not qualify her to make such a sweeping statement about who deserves a National Artist Award or not. It illustrates that the clash in this year’s awarding stems from some people obviously thinking they are expert or know enough about the arts to decide or defend the National Artist selections while others, which seems to be many who regularly work in the arts, disagree with their judgment. Becoming an expert in a particular field in the arts is a long, arduous and complicated process. It involves more than Ermita saying Alvarez is “really good.”

I also have to admit that I am quite irritated at the award guidelines as saying, “These achievements are measured in terms of their vision, unusual insight, creativity and imagination, technical proficiency of the highest order in expressing Filipino culture and traditions, history, way of life, and aspirations.” While the awards should be limited to Filipino citizens, it should not be bestowed upon them for their art’s “Filipino identity” but for their art’s excellence, whether this deals with Filipino identity or not. The awards must progressively recognize that art is transnational and not simply a tool for nation-building.

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