National Artists of (Dis)Honor No More

Barely four years when Gloria Arroyo stunned the artistic community with her insertion of the Four Stooges into the roll of National Artists, the Supreme Court on July 15, 2013 declared as invalid the awards bestowed on Cecille Alvarez (theater), Magno Jose Carlo Caparas (visual arts and film), Francisco Manosa (architecture), and Jose Moreno (fashion design) due to grave abuse of discretion by no less than the chief law enforcer of the land, who, coincidentally, is doing time in detention at the VMMC for a couple of more serious charges.

In commemoration of that sad day, the day Decency died, I am reposting this piece I blogged about what to many in both the artistic community and the nation at large was Arroyo’s final hara kiri (mis)calculated to bring the artistic community and cultural workers to her side as her popularity was spiraling downward rather steadily. Looking back, her attempt was a huge success!

Here’s my take of the events, with some updating:

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I was trying to make sense out of the latest tragedy that has befallen the artistic community after it suffered, yet again, another blow when Malacanang, in its darkest bowel form, named its four stooges, er, proteges to the honor of National Artist, now officially named Order of National Artists.

The announcement of the latest batch of National Artists is normally less controversial because, normally, the rules and the unwritten tradition that underscores excellence of the artist’s body of work are strictly adhered to. But in abnormal situations, like the one surrounding the insertion of “Malacanang 4,” the mere mention of any of these awardees’ name provokes fire, especially if one awardee has been nominated but rejected twice for two different categories. But thanks to that awardee’s persistence, and his persistent patron saint in Pasig, now he can finally bring him home his beautiful trophy, his medical and life insurance, and the rare honor of a state funeral.

As Bien Lumbera–National Artist for Literature and chair of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines–confirmed in media reports, only four names have been submitted to Malacanang for approval, and certainly not for insertion: Manuel Urbano a.k.a. Manuel Conde (posthumous, film and broadcast arts); Federico Aguilar Alcuaz (visual arts, paintings, sculpture and mixed media); Lazaro Francisco (posthumous, literature); and Dr. Ramon Santos (music).

But Malacanang did what it famously does best: it did a Garci, inspired by the forthcoming elections, arriving at a magical -1, +4 formula: it omitted Santos, and added Cecille Alvarez (theater), Magno Jose Carlo Caparas (visual arts and film), Francisco Manosa (architecture), and Jose Moreno (fashion design). This brings a total of not one but four insertions, very much like the fund appropriation for the road that traverses the property of a senator who wants to become the next president. On this note, Malacanang just bested Villar’s best record of two insertions. So who did the Garci? I have a suspect but as it is . . . a suspect. (Update: My suspect passed away a few months ago).

The public ire Caparas and Alvarez incurred is not due to their closeness with Arroyo, although and, in fact, they are; it has to do with their temerity to leave decency aside for the sake of honor they don’t rightfully deserve.

Caparas has been nominated and rejected twice—first for literature and, second for visual arts—both instances of which were failed attempts by the same cabal of servile flatterers whose inartistic reputation is beyond redemption. But Caparas’ dogged determination trounces whatever basic decency and delicadeza left in his veins.

On the other hand, Alvarez could have done better by choosing to be honorable enough to decline the nomination by virtue of a rule that bars members, officers, employees and staff of CCP and NCCA from being nominated. For heaven’s sake, she is the sitting executive director of the NCCA at the time of her “nomination” and whose duty among other functions includes receiving the names of the shortlisted candidates. Delicadeza? It’s lost and never to be found.

Alvarez defended her nomination by rattling off her previous awards, awards that her patron convinced were worth enough for her insertion. Surely, she had her fair share of artistic endeavors that brought her, her family and her country some good and these might have enriched her ‘body of work.’ Yet, wisdom would tell her to wait, as it is not the right time. But it happened; she was named. There must be a higher wisdom that guided Malacanang’s insertion of Alvarez, Caparas and Moreno into the list with a sense of an urgency beyond reproach. This higher wisdom must have eluded the highly respected peers of Alvarez, Caparas and Moreno in counting them off from the final list of four. This is the new moral high ground!

While there is really nothing new about presidential insertions in the honorable roster of National Artists, the latest act by Arroyo’s minions—with her divine imprimatur, of course—effectively rewrites the rule and history of the Order of National Artists, a welcome change for those who could not make the cut. During the administrations of Ramos and Estrada, they made one insertions each on the list of candidates chosen and endorsed by their peers in the artistic community. Arroyo, ever the ebullient, feisty politico she has become in her almost two terms of office, is certainly in for breaking records: she inserted three!

The choice and endorsement by peers is not something to be taken against the person who usually makes the final choice—the president. Not that presidents know nothing about art, or that art such as poetry is far less exciting than pork, a presidential favorite and the official congressional diet especially these days when senators and congressmen are preparing themselves for 2010. Rather, this choice of and by peers ensures that those who are inducted into the so-called ‘academy’ are only those who have way, way satisfied the standards they themselves set. For this purpose, we don’t have any need for a sitting NCCA chairman or executive director who not only misunderstands tradition but one who is even ready and willing to destroy it. And it becomes more unbearable for self-annointed national artists whose body of work easily betrays their own sense of accomplishment, self-righteousness, and self-importance.

We may ask if there’s a way to restore honor in the nomination, to right the wrongs and vindicate the wronged. Yes, there is, but it is a difficult one. If the Malacanang Four will cling on to their tainted honor, then the three original nominees should refuse to accept theirs. The challenge is now on the side of the right and reasonable. It is difficult, yes, but it is not impossible. Rightness should not yield to popularity, not even convenience!