Complacencies of the cookie

26 August 2009 13 comments

Yesterday, the Supreme Court (SC), in response to a petition filed last week by various artists—National and otherwise—academicians, and other individuals, issued a status quo order to stop the conferment of the title of National Artist on all those who had named last July 29.

Thus does another scandal land in the laps of our justices, as highly contentious issues are wont to do in this country. While such matters are certainly within the sphere over which the SC presides, if only because the SC takes on the responsibility for them, that things invariably need to be brought before the SC for resolution speaks of an increasingly sad, because apparently chronic, social condition: the inability and/or the unwillingness to engage in civil, thoughtful, meaningful dialogue, and, in so doing, arrive at a compromise that is acceptable to everyone—or to no one, which could be nearly as good—and (potentially) waste less public money and hot air.

According to the petitioners, grave abuse of discretion was committed when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, in consultation with the Malacañang Committee on Honors, included Francisco “Bobby” Mañosa, Jose “Pitoy” Moreno, Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, and Magno Jose Carlos J. Caparas in the roster, as well as excluded Ramon Santos, one of the four artists who had actually passed through the screening process of the National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).

Incidentally, the Committee on Honors is not at all mysterious, despite several widely circulated reports and statements: Executive Order No. 236 clearly establishes it. Bayan Muna party-list representatives Teodoro A. Casiño and Raymond V. Palatino, authors of House Resolution No. 1309, are obviously misinformed, and that is a disservice to the sector for which they wish to take up the cudgels.

In Wigberto E. Tañada, et al. vs. Edgardo Angara, et al., among other cases, “grave abuse of discretion” is defined as follows:

By grave abuse of discretion is meant such capricious and whimsical exercise of judgment as is equivalent to lack of jurisdiction. Mere abuse of discretion is not enough. It must be grave abuse of discretion as when the power is exercised in an arbitrary or despotic manner by reason of passion or personal hostility, and must be so patent and so gross as to amount to an evasion of a positive duty or to a virtual refusal to perform the duty enjoined or to act at all in contemplation of law. Failure on the part of the petitioner to show grave abuse of discretion will result in the dismissal of the petition.

In view of the foregoing, that the petition invokes the selection of Fernando Amorsolo to support arguments regarding the limits of discretion tends to register as hilarious, because the very existence of the Order of National Artists (ONA)—until 2003, the National Artist Award—was caused by the (in)famously whimsical Imelda Marcos: it was at her behest that Proclamation No. 1001 was issued.

The petition also states in part that the controversial exercise of presidential prerogative “irretrievably taints the Order of National Artists as being one that is subject to politics and will diminish the prestige of the rank and title for the National Artists who are alive and active”—assuming, perhaps, that the honor of the dead is unassailable.

How the petition will be dealt with remains to be seen, but the truth is that, had the artistic community been vigilant custodians of culture, been mindful of its responsibilities to the public whose funds support it, the petition would never have been needed in the first place. Given that the community has had a significant degree of control over the ONA since 1986, I am frankly surprised that it never took legal action until now. Are two decades not enough for the flaws of the system to be evident? What does it say about the community that it was willing to live with—maybe even take advantage of—these flaws? Instead of lobbying for amendments to be made, were the artists lobbying for and against each other in miscellaneous struggles for recognition and legitimization—in grabbing for cookies, as Butch Dalisay might put it?

Why did the artistic community, initial protestations notwithstanding, stand by and watch as Ernani J. Cuenco, Alejandro R. Roces, and Abdulmari Asia Imao were named National Artists via presidential prerogative? The case of Imao is particularly interesting: Why had no Muslim artists been included in the ONA until Macapagal-Arroyo used her discretion to do so?

Why did the artistic community not file any petitions when Fidel V. Ramos took it upon himself to create the  category of “Historical Literature” for the purpose of honoring Carlos Quirino? Wouldn’t the establishment of a completely new category and the insertion of an honoree count as “grave abuse of discretion” too?

What was the artistic community doing when Executive Order No. 435 was issued? Why does the community not seem to have heard about it? It is on the basis of this order that the NCCA and CCP were reduced to an advisory function, ostensibly in order to “harmonize the procedure for awarding the Order of National Artists with the purpose and intent of existing laws”.

Of the beasts that pursue a terrified Dante as he stumbles through the Dark Wood of Error, the most relentless and the most fearsome is the she-wolf, and her appetites—gustatory, carnal, and otherwise—are savage and utterly insatiable. The she-wolf is therefore generally seen as representing the sins of incontinence.

Were there a Dante to write Inferno today—he would be in his 40s—and were one to imagine—as I do, for my own amusement—a Dante steeped in popular culture, enamored with allusions, and possessed of an irreverent sense of humor, it is not entirely unlikely that he would install Cookie Monster in place of the she-wolf. Despite a fairly recent move toward a healthier diet, the blue-furred, googly-eyed, growly Muppet has achieved little else by way of self-control—he will still gobble up anything that seems remotely edible, such as Stephen Colbert’s Peabody Award. Although the monster formerly known as Sid is far and away more lovable than a slavering, bloodthirsty canine, malevolence is not, in any case, a prerequisite for incontinence.

What does serve to complement, if not buttress, incontinence is complacency. Cookie Monster exists in a state of blissful obliviousness, unaware of the ways in which he impinges upon the property and well-being of others, and unmindful of the effects of his actions on the network of social relations in which he is unavoidably, inextricably entwined. It does not even occur to him to worry about himself. But of course he would have no reason to be other than what he is: ravenous, messy, careless. The advantage of being Cookie Monster is that, at the end of the day, he is merely a fuzzy blue sack, and whatever agency that he might be said to have begins and ends with the script of any given episode.

The artists now upset over the ONA cannot lay claim to fictionality or disavow their agency, no matter how loudly they insist on living inside a Kantian bubble. Hitherto poor stewards of the arts, whether through passivity, arrogance, willful ignorance, or malice, they have brought this controversy upon themselves. What is truly unfortunate here is that, for all their wrangling over cookies, it is the public that suffers the toothaches and the stomachaches.

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Notes on the 2009 National Artists controversy

Bared last 29 July, the roster of National Artists for this year has caused such controversy as to make the headlines. Suddenly, art is everywhere, a player thrust upon the stage and into the limelight of public debate, the intensity of which recalls the furor that raged over the acquisition by the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) in 2002 of Juan Luna’s Parisian Life, “a piece of history” that cost Php46 million. The Commission on Audit (COA) would later find the purchase “morally objectionable“, a phrase that has also been bandied about to characterize the ongoing uproar.

At the heart of the current scandal are perceived irregularities in the selection process: in a heretofore unprecedented exercise of presidential prerogative, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo refused to confirm the proclamation of composer and musicologist Ramon Santos, who had been one of the choices of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), and added four names that had not been screened by the aforementioned agencies: Francisco “Bobby” Mañosa, Jose “Pitoy” Moreno, Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, and Magno Jose Carlos J. Caparas. The latter two choices are particularly galling to many: Guidote-Alvarez is the executive director of the NCCA, and thus is disqualified by the very guidelines of the commision she helms, while Caparas has been tagged as undeserving.

Certain denizens of the artistic community have been so outraged that, among other protests, necrological services for the death of the National Artist Awards were held last Friday, with National Artists for Literature Virgilio S. Almario and Bienvenido L. Lumbera vowing not to use their medallions until the issue has been settled, which presumably means the withdrawal of honors from Guidote-Alvarez and Caparas, at the very least, so that Almario will be able to sleep at night.

How this matter will be resolved has yet to be seen, as the Palace is standing by its choices. Nevertheless, as an interested outsider—not to mention a taxpayer—I wish to reflect on some of the issues that the present dispute has exposed.

Contrary to statements that have been made deploring the “politicization” of the Order of National Artists (ONA), the ONA is, with or without the participation—or interference, perhaps—of Malacañang, always already political, woven inextricably into and constitutive of the very fabric of power relations of the art world. In any case, the President is not explicitly forbidden from making selections of her own—given that she is the head of state, and that the ONA is a state title, I do believe that she should have some control over the process, at least until a law is passed prohibiting her from doing so.

One need only look back three years ago, when Philippine Star columnist Alfred “Krip” A. Yuson, passive-aggressive beerhouse rhetorician extraordinaire, blasted the selection of Lumbera as National Artist over his bet, Cirilo F. Bautista, describing Lumbera as “the communist candidate” and “a second-tier citizen in the republic of arts and letters”, while simultaneously making the ridiculous claim that such assertions were not attacks. (Some of the responses to Yuson, of which my personal favorite is by Rosario Cruz Lucero, have been compiled in this blog entry by University of the Philippines professor Jose Wendell Capili.) In that same article, Yuson quotes Gémino H. Abad as saying that, had he been aware of the way the deliberations were going, he could have made a stronger case for Bautista. While it may well be that artists can make the most credible and authoritative judgments about their peers—a point that I do not necessarily agree with—the ONA is, in a sense, a glorified culturati cockfight, with each faction rallying behind and lobbying for its respective rooster. The art world is not a rarefied sphere of civility, courage, and goodness floating autonomously above the rest of society—artists are every bit as petty, as contentious, and as malicious as government officials.

The comments of Caroline S. Hau in Necessary Fictions are illuminating, and her description of the literary scene as incestuous could tentatively be applied to the cultural scene as a whole:

The so-called literary scene in the Philippines is characteristically small, and although a number of literary biographies have been produced in recent years, the main form in which information circulates within that scene has been gossip, which is woven out of the threads of personal relations linking writers to writers, and writers to critics (who are often writers, too). It also means that writers pat each other on the back and give each other awards, and that younger writers get their chance and opportunities through the beneficence or patronage or praise of older, established writers. Come Choosing-the-Canon-Time, who else but their friends would these writer-professors nominate?

…the Philippine literary scene resembles a hamlet patrolled by small, overlapping bands of writers who conduct their feuds and rituals, if not in full view, then at least within gossip’s range, of each other.

Therefore, Caparas has a point when he decries the snobbery underpinning the criticism he has received as a result of being proclaimed National Artist. While Caparas is wrong to reduce the controversy to the classic—and ultimately unfruitful—oppositions between high culture and low culture, between fine art and popular art, and between the elite and the masa, the ONA is, by its very nature, elitist. Notions of honor, of prestige, of merit, and of taste are not free-floating, abstract, innocent, democratic concepts, but ones that cause the inclusion and legitimization of certain figures, activities, and phenomena at the expense of others, and with specific material effects over and above whatever honors and privileges come with any given award or title—effects that, I suspect, many National Artists would disavow. Consider, for instance, that the goal of many a serious collector of Philippine art is to own at least one work by every National Artist, which means that such works tend to fetch astronomical prices on the market. Even ephemera that were never intended to be exhibited or sold—e.g., sketches, studies, and memorabilia—can be very costly, particularly if the National Artist is already deceased. And what the National Artist cannot gain in monetary terms, he/she gains in terms of authority: his/her very presence and opinions are inevitably considered weightier and more significant than those of others.

I would like to underscore that even when the choice of National Artist is relatively uncontroversial, it is only because that artist is acceptable to a broad consensus of the artistic community, which is hardly representative of the Philippines as a whole. In a country where over nine million families recently rated themselves as poor, I doubt if art exists in the lives of the majority at all, and yet it is this same majority that funds the ONA. Do our National Artists truly belong to and engage with the public, or do they merely delineate a self-contained, masturbatory economy exclusive to the cultural cognoscenti? (I think it fair to ask, for example, where our National Artists for Literature were when the Department of Finance levied a tax on imported books earlier this year.)

Lest I be branded a cynic—or worse, an apologist for Caparas—what I have been trying to do here is to lay bare the tensions roiling beneath the surface of what may seem to be a fairly simple dispute over protocol and transparency.

If, as UP professor and Star columnist Butch Dalisay asserts, “no true artist needs an award, especially one granted by a government whose credibility and sincerity many artists will or should find trouble with“, then I have to ask why the artistic community bothers with the ONA in the first place. That Dalisay resorts to a romantic idealization of the ONA is, to my mind, rather disingenuous: “The National Artist Award was meant to rise above petty politics, to give some material recognition and sustenance for our most creative and most productive imaginations—a vain hope, as it turns out, in this politically besotted and benighted country.” If the ONA has now been corrupted, as many protesters allege, then why did the National Artists stop at a symbolic burial of their medallions? Wouldn’t the truly meaningful gesture be to relinquish their titles, return their medallions, and give up whatever privileges the ONA accorded them? Or why not set up a private award-giving body to confer the National Artist Award? Doesn’t the Manila Critics Circle give out the National Book Awards?

Whatever else this tumult may lead to, I believe that this is a good opportunity for artists, especially National Artists, to take stock of themselves and their practices. According to the NCCA, National Artists are recognized for 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”. What sort of nation, what sort of “Philippines” do our artists imagine themselves as being part of and participating in? Who are the Filipinos that they wish to address? What is really at stake for the artists who are now up in arms?