Posts Tagged ‘Butch Dalisay’

Awards and Criticism: Rewards and Punishment?

16 October 2009 1 comment


I don’t trust that I’m either an intellectual or emotional masochist, but I love reading criticism on subjects that influence my character:  Being a Filipino, woman, middle class, agnostic, even a literature major.

My attitude towards criticism is the same with that of a conversation.  You watch a movie with a friend and afterwards feel an urgency to talk about it.  It is a dialogue wherein the participants’ main goal is not to agree or disagree with each other, but to throw light on why their responses to the work are such.

But when the critique is directed at methe specific and unique I, I am definitely no masochist.  A negative statement about you, your word, work and deed, hurts.

To anyone engaging in the art of communication, to those who are serious about their message and want to be taken seriously, the worst things that can happen, considering they are heard, are:

  1. Be misunderstood and dismissed; and
  2. Be completely understood and logically shown that your words are wrong and weak.

Item one makes you feel helpless and conclude at the end of the day that only you can talk to yourself.  You truly are your best audience.  Item two on the other hand tells you that there is someone else who gets it.  That there is a reader and a reading to benefit from.  Between the two, which response would you prefer?

Criticism has gained a reputation as a fault-finding practice.  Maybe because those who practice it are focused on digging for mistakes, or because those whose works are criticized are too sensitive and take critiques as personal attacks.  Maybe both.

Do art and literature matter?

I gave and received my share of criticism (mostly on poetry) when I was still writing under a pseudonym on another blog in 2006.  Several observations were:

  1. People care and are curious about poetry.  They crave a discussion on what is happening, what is good, bad and ugly.
  2. People listen.

With a framework of writing as if in conversation with a few friends, involvement of readers outside my circle surprised me and led me to believe that I was not alone in my confusion regarding what people think pass as good poetry.  An audience I was not familiar with also pushed me to take more responsibility.  They may only be a few, but considering I was writing about poetry, that audience was more than enough for me.

Readers would ask the big question:  What is a good poem then?  And I felt bad for not being able to reply; partly because I felt like I had to give an introductory course on poetry, since not one sentence or book could answer that, and partly because I realized I was practicing criticism on a very superficial leveldigging for mistakes.

If art and literature matter

When I first heard of the National Artist Awards controversy in August, my initial reaction was, Okay, so what? I’d grown desensitized to questionable awards.  I would even side with those who think that if the name Carlo Caparas were as obscure as Emmanuel Garibayand we loved our presidentno one would say a word about it.

All this to me shows that while we are concerned about the arts, we do not bother enough to examine it (as with many things, we leave it up to emotion and reflex).  When we say art, people’s reactions will mostly be associations with beauty, truth, rebellion, the profound and inexplicable; or I don’t care.  And we have always been fine with that.  There is a virtual consensus that there is no objective way of viewing art, or at least an objective way of articulating one’s feeling towards an artwork.

Some, in their own ways, have been taking action to promote the arts and educate people about it.  There are two things, though, that I believe art could benefit from the most.

1.  We need the awards

  • Yes, to acknowledge and encourage artists, but only secondary to recognizing and demanding artistic excellence.  Artists may have different motivations for joining a contest, but all that will not matter if they win through the merits of their work.
  • To serve as another context in studying the craftas a record of what the standards are of a particular period.  What are the trends, what are the deviations, what are the merits of the deviations?  Why?
  • We need the awards and right now we are seeing how we also need to: (a) improve on its systems, and (b) change our attitude towards it.  Some suggest that the prize money could better be invested in a cause that would enrich the arts.  And instead of a token that seals the artist’s creative credibility and recompenses good work, an award must oblige and challenge the artist to further develop artistic institutions.
  • And yes, by all means give awards for criticism, if only to encourage it and celebrate critical thinking.

2.  We need criticism

  • To serve as another context in studying and valuating an artwork.  (Other than the audience and artist’s personal biases.)
  • To serve as another stimulus in art appreciation.
  • The best promotion of art is discussion.

While we teach how to produce art, we do not teach how to give a critical estimate of an artwork.  (Production is also a practice of critical estimation; the former is exclusive to the artist, the latter is beneficial to both artist and audience.)

Regular criticism in all possible media could serve as a continuous conversation, and if you like, a kind of calibration that would guide us in understanding and appreciating art.


Awards given to the National Artists are sourced from public funds.  That is one solid line that connects art and society.  If art matters to us, we should act as if it really matters.  We can always stay in our world of read-write-paint-et cetera, but once we start expecting recognition for our work and expressing discontent in the environment that influences what we hold dear, then we have to involve ourselves in that bigger world of criticisms and develop our artistic institutions.


  1. Being completely understood and logically shown that your words are wrong and weak can also be one of the best things to happen to someone.
  2. Nothing against Mr. Emmanuel Garibay.
  3. The post is in part a response/additive to what Butch Dalisay previously wrote; Philbert Ortiz Dy’s ideas on how to improve the awards systems are also taken into consideration.
  4. Ideal criticism is subject for another discussion.

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?