And Then There Were Five

Miriam Grace A. Go

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A last-minute choice sparks fireworks over the National Artist Awards

Editor’s Note: This story was first published by Newsbreak.

MANILA, Philippines – Just when government offices were closing on June 2, Malacañang released a series of presidential proclamations naming this year’s five National Artists. Unintended as it might have been, the timing of theannouncement could very well symbolize the irregularity that people inliterary and academic circles say characterized the final choice of thelatest batch of laureates.

At the last minute, President Arroyo included in the list of Pambansang Alagad ng Sining a newspaper columnist close to her family but who did not pass the rigorous vetting process for the award.

For interfering in the selection process, Arroyo joined presidents before her who diminished the integrity of the awards by bypassing the judges and naming favored individuals. The latest controversy—the fourth since the awards began in 1972—also brings to the fore the need to make the selection process more transparent and completely independent.

Original Choices

Newsbreak has it on good authority that the joint selection committee—composed of commissioners of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and board members of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP)—sent the Chief Executive in late March the names of only four awardees: film director Eddie Romero, theater designer Salvador Bernal, the late painter Jose Joya, and poet-critic Virgilio S. Almario.

On May 26, however, Arroyo signed five proclamations—one each for the four chosen by the cultural agencies, plus one for Alejandro Roces, who was cited for his contribution in literature.

Disgruntled writers and artists saw politics behind the President’s move. Roces served as education secretary under Arroyo’s father, the late President Diosdado Macapagal. Arroyo appointed him chair of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB), where he was later replaced without first being informed about it. Critics said that Roces was therefore being cited, if not for devotion to the Macapagal family, then as a consolation after the MTRCB fiasco.

The protests against him—mainly within the literary and cultural community—were so strong that the Palace delayed the announcement, sending the pertinent proclamations to the NCCA and the CCP only on June 2, at almost 5 p.m.

Between March 28, when the selection committee drew up the list of four winners, and May 26, when Arroyo signed the proclamations, Roces reportedly had writers and artists sympathetic to him sign a petition to have him declared as National Artist, according to two sources, one of whom belongs to the CCP.

In a telephone interview, Roces denied that he had a hand in the signature campaign. He said he, in fact, learned only later that National Artists Nick Joaquin and Leonor Goquingco had nominated him for the awards.

“If I am nominated by Nick Joaquin, I don’t think anybody can question [my qualifications],” Roces told Newsbreak.

Sought for comment, Billy Lacaba, Joaquin’s literary agent and manager, told Newsbreak: “Nick Joaquin is willing to acknowledge he nominated [Alejandro] Anding Roces.”

To those who say that he bagged the award because of political connections, Roces has this advice: “Read my book Fiesta and my collection of short stories [Of Cocks and Kites] and forthcoming musical play [Something to Crow About, based on the second book].”

Still, some writers avoided recognizing Roces’s selection or appeared cautious in their appreciation of his works. In his June 9 column in the Philippine Star, where Roces also writes, poet and fictionist Alfred Yuson said only four got the selection committee’s nod. He did not mention Roces as among the four.

Days earlier, Star columnist Juaniyo Arcellana wrote a piece on the paper’s front page, praising Roces for being a “patriot,” among other things, but not as literary writer for which he was being honored. 

Highest Recognition

The National Artist Award, established by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972, is the highest recognition given to Filipinos who have “effected, enhanced, and given direction” to various artistic fields. Including the five honored last June 25 in Malacañang, 50 artists so far have been recognized for their accomplishments in music, dance, theater, visual arts, literature, film, broadcast arts, architecture, and allied arts. This year, the multidisciplinary category was created to acknowledge individuals who have excelled in more than one artistic field.

A writer or artist may be nominated by government and nongovernment cultural organizations, educational institutions, and private foundations and councils. Information submitted on the nominees is verified by the Special Research Group formed by the NCCA and the CCP, the agencies that serve as awards secretariat. Composed of arts experts, the group may search for additional data on nominees, or even suggest additional nominees.

All the nominations are forwarded to the Council of Peers for deliberation. The council is divided into groups that correspond to the different award categories. Each group is composed of seven to 12 “highly regarded” arts experts, including other National Artists. Two different panels from the Council of Peers conduct the first and second deliberations.

The second panel—chosen by secret balloting from among the members of the first panel—recommends a short list of nominees to the joint selection committee composed of NCCA and CCP officials. After the final selection, the committee submits the names to the President “for confirmation and proclamation.” Losing nominees are automatically considered in another round of screening two years later.

A National Artist gets P100,000 in cash, a medallion and citation, a special license plate for his car, a lifetime monthly allowance of P20,000, medical and hospitalization benefits, and arrangements for a state funeral when he passes away. The family of a posthumous awardee gets a P75,000 cash prize.

Palace Hand

Presidents, however, have gone beyond just confirming the winners chosen by cultural agencies (and, in effect, by the artistic community).

During the time of President Marcos, the First Lady usually consulted a circle of advisers on who should be named National Artists. In 1982, Marcos insisted on having a say in the selection. He wanted the award for Carlos P. Romulo (for literature) and got his wish.

In 1997, President Fidel Ramos interfered in the selection to an extent unparalleled to this day. He created a new category—historical literature—to accommodate biographer Carlos Quirino, who was eliminated as early as the first stage of the selection process. The lobbying by Quirino’s children is well-documented. In a letter to the President, they made references to how Ramos and Quirino knew each other personally. They said the recognition would “make Papa happy.”

In 1999, President Joseph Estrada issued a proclamation naming his good friend Ernani Cuenco as National Artist for Music even before the NCCA-CCP could submit to him the list of awardees, which did not include Cuenco. This resulted in the proclamation for Cuenco bearing an earlier date than the proclamations for the other awardees.

Cuenco, a noted composer in his own right, did the music for “Kahit Magtiis,” which was written by Estrada. Their friendship started in the 1960s, when Cuenco was a pianist at the cocktail lounge of a Makati hotel which Estrada frequented.

This year, sources involved in various stages of the selection process said 48 individuals were nominated for the awards. The roster was trimmed to 13 by the first panel of the Council of Peers, and to seven, then six, by the second panel. From that list, the NCCA-CCP joint selection committee chose only four—Roces not among them—and submitted their names to Malacañang.


President Arroyo at least relented to the compromise sought by the cultural agencies. Proclamation Numbers 383, 384, 385, 386 – for Romero, Bernal, Joya, and Almario, respectively – said the President declared them National Artists “by virtue of the powers vested in me by the Constitution and existing laws” and “upon the recommendation of the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.” In Proclamation 387, for Roces, there was no mention of a recommendation from the CCP and the NCCA.

Roces doesn’t lack defenders, and one of them is novelist F. Sionil Jose, another National Artist. At the height of the Quirino controversy in 1997, Jose also came to Quirino’s defense. Jose said then: “The National Artist Award is a presidential award. Mr. Ramos is the President of this country. Are you telling him that he cannot give out the award to anybody he chooses, that he cannot interfere in the selection process?”

Some observers say that if the President’s meddling can be justified that way, the government should consider doing away with the selection process for the awards.

Because of the latest controversy, some artists’ and writers’ groups are suggesting that the NCCA and the CCP announce the awardees they’ve chosen before submitting their names to Malacañang for confirmation. This way, the President will do “dagdag-bawas (add-subtract)” at his or her own risk.

Others are even questioning the wisdom of giving out such awards in the first place.

In an article in the cultural website, poet Romulo Baquiran Jr. likened the naming of a National Artist to “canonizing a saint.”

If that is the case, presidents need to keep the selection process sacred. –

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Miriam Grace A. Go

Miriam Grace A Go’s areas of interest are local governance, campaigns and elections, and anything Japanese.