Politics and Arts

Miriam Grace A. Go
Malacañang confers the award on two artists as a form of political accommodation

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

MANILA, Philippines – “DNA.” Artists and writers coined it in 2003, when President Arroyo issued a last-minute order to name a family friend National Artist. The derisive phrase—“Dagdag National Artist”—recently made the rounds of text messages again following reports that the President might confer the awards to two artists who were eliminated as early as the first round of the selection process.

For the fourth consecutive time over almost a decade, the award that the government says “embodies the nation’s highest ideals in humanism and aesthetic expression” is mired in controversy. As we went to press, Malacañang indicated that President Arroyo would be conferring the award on the late Sen. Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo (for writing poetry and translating plays) and sculptor and painter Abdulmari Asia Imao as a form of political accommodation.

The Palace is not denying that the two didn’t pass the thorough three-phase selection process. It argues that the law gives the President the prerogative to add to the list submitted to her by the committee composed of representatives from various artistic fields and institutions. The award is jointly administered by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).

Questions on the credibility of the awards persist, and this time concerned artists are seriously thinking ways to prevent any more interventions that could further diminish the prestige and relevance of the awards. They want a new law that would specifically deny the President any “prerogative” in relation to the National Artist Awards, except to confer it to the ones chosen by the designated experts.

Safeguarding the process may also mean keeping the National Artist Awards at par with similar recognitions that the states of Thailand, Japan, France, the US, and others confer on their artists.

Short List

Newsbreak talked to several sources involved in the various stages of the deliberations. Having sworn to keep the confidentiality of the proceedings, these sources requested not to be identified. They confirmed the information we earlier gathered that:

* Rodrigo was among the 19 nominated for the literature category, and Imao was one of the 25 nominated for the visual arts category.

* In the first round—conducted by the Council of Experts in each field—Rodrigo and Imao didn’t make it to the short list of their respective categories. Shorlisted for Literature were Bienvenido Lumbera and Cirilo Bautista; shorlisted for Visual Arts were Ben Cabrera (more popularly known as BenCab) and Mauro Malang Santos.

After the first deliberation, however, Alejandro Roces wrote in his Philippine Star column that Rodrigo deserved to be named National Artist for Literature. This was followed by news reports quoting NCCA’s Cecille Guidote Alvarez as saying that the President had the prerogative to confer him the award.

Roces himself became a National Artist for Literature in 2003 through the backdoor. Eliminated on the first round, he got the executive order for his award much later than the awardees who really made it on the list.

Family Ties

Roces was education secretary of the late President Diosdado Macapagal, the incumbent’s father. When Roces served under President Arroyo, he was fired as chair of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board, but was later given the National Artist Award.

On the other hand, Rodrigo was Diosdado’s contemporary as an anti-Marcos politician. Rodrigo’s daughter Veronica (“Bing”) was the high school best friend of the President. Bing later became President Arroyo’s correspondence secretary in Malacañang, but had to resign after she blew the whistle on First Gentleman Mike Arroyo’s alleged acceptance of a P50-million bribe from a telecoms company.

In the case of Imao, the President endorsed him as early as last year. As soon as the nominations were in, President Arroyo issued a statement on March 17, 2005: “Today, I am happy to announce that, on the occasion of World Theater this month, I am conferring the Presidential Merit Award to Dr. Abdulmari Asia Imao, which award will strengthen his nomination for the National Artist Award in 2006.”

Lately, Malacañang claimed that it was being flooded by petitions and endorsements from several individuals and organizations, especially from Mindanao, for conferring on Imao the National Artist award for visual arts. “I know I deserve the award,” Imao said in an email interview. No artist from the South known for promoting indigenous art has won the award, which is “unfair,” he added.

The lobbying for Rodrigo and Imao was the reason that after the release of the names of the six National Artists in late March, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita took them back and said there could be additional awardees. It’s not true that the Palace was re-considering Fernando Poe Jr., who was on the original list.

The second round of deliberation, where representatives from eight artistic fields voted across sectors, came up with eight finalists: Cabrera, Lumbera, Ramon Obusan (dance), Poe (film), Ildefonso Santos Jr. (architecture and allied arts), Ramon Valera (fashion design), Naty Crame Rogers (theater), and George Canseco (music).

From the eight, the joint committees of the CCP and the NCCA and the 12 living national artists, chose the first six names for the final list. Logic would dictate that if the President wanted to add two more awardees, she could choose Rogers and Canseco. However, as we went to press, people involved in the preparation for the awarding ceremonies said they already had the materials for the six, but were waiting for Rodrigo’s and Imao’s.

Ramos’s Choice

The National Artist Awards was created as a presidential award by virtue of Proclamation 1001, signed in April 1972. Since then, Imelda Marcos, who fashioned herself as patron of the arts, would pick the awardees after consulting with experts in the field. The first “controversy” happened when President Ferdinand Marcos himself insisted that Carlos Romulo be named National Artist against the recommendation of Imelda’s advisers.

After the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, many had thought that presidential interventions in the awarding process would cease. But in 1997, then President Ramos intervened and created an additional category—Historical Literature—to accommodate the family of historian Carlos Quirino who were Ramos’s friends.

In 1999, President Joseph Estrada proclaimed his friend Ernani Cuenco as National Artist for Music even before the CCP and the NCCA could submit the list of awardees. In 2003, President Arroyo proclaimed Roces after the awardees were named.

The Palace is invoking Section 7.7 of the revised criteria and guidelines of the National Artist Award that, “The list of honorees shall be submitted to the President of the Philippines for confirmation, proclamation, and conferral.”

Although the sentence clearly means that the President can only confirm or, implicitly, subtract names from the list, the Palace apparently exploits the lack of explicit prohibition for adding names to the list. What’s not prohibited is allowed.

Vulnerable to Lobbying

Journalist Joselito Zulueta, chair of the NCCA’s national committee on literary arts, said that it’s not only the President that politicizes the awards. Even the selection process itself is open to the lobbying of interested parties who have connections to the offices or people involved—from the documentation of the 100-plus nominees to the voting during the third and final round.

Despite this, the awards continue to provide the public guideposts as who should they read, watch, or listen to. It helps “improve the Filipinos’ cultural literacy.”

De La Salle University professor Isagani Cruz, who has sat in National Artist boards for several years now, acknowledges that “all selection processes, including the American Oscars, are subject to politicking.” But in the case of the National Artist Awards,  he has never seen any expert swayed by media campaigns. Nevertheless, he suggests that to stop the President from meddling in the awards, the National Artist law should be amended.

Virgilio Almario, dean of the UP College of Arts and Letters, agrees. When he was executive director of the NCCA during the Ramos and Estrada presidencies, Almario introduced the “council of peers” concept to the selection process. Now called Council of Experts, these are accomplished and respected persons in various artistic and cultural fields who evaluate the merits of nominees. To prevent certain cultural power blocs from dominating the selection, the NCCA maintained a list of peers or experts for every field. Each time the awards season came (every two to three years), the names of the year’s “judges” are drawn as in a lottery.

Still, this didn’t prevent presidents from exercising their “prerogative.” Almario himself, when named National Artist for Literature in 2003, later found himself sharing the title with a backdoor entrant, Roces.

Almario is advising the NCCA to push for the law’s amendment. He is also coming up with a detailed study on improving the awards, not just in terms of the credibility of the selection process, but also the scope of the awards.

Poet Ricardo de Ungria says the government should also consider giving a different set of awards, “where [presidential] prerogative is the norm and not the exception.” It could be a Presidential Order of Merit in the Arts, or a Presidential Award for the Arts. That way, the National Artist Award will hopefully be kept “unassailable and worthy of itself.”

But in no way should these controversies be an argument to abolish the awards, says Prof. Cruz. “It remains prestigious because most of the National Artists were chosen by artists themselves. It remains relevant because art, that is creativity, will save the country…Artists have changed the history of the country.” – Rappler.com

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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.