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Awards and Criticism: Rewards and Punishment?

16 October 2009 1 comment

Conversation

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.

Option

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.

NOTES:

  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.
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Reopening the question, Does poetry matter?

16 October 2009 1 comment

1.

“Poetry is the highest and most difficult of the literary arts.”  It is also the most useless.

If I am asked, Does poetry matter?, the answer is yes, it matters to me.  But the question is not, Does poetry matter to you? To rephrase and put the question in context:  How relevant is poetry in the Philippines in these times?

A chat with a friend has led me to say, Art, especially poetry, is insignificant in these times and in this country.  It is a chat situated in a time when two typhoons have destroyed families and properties in Luzon; when death of democracy icon, Corazon Aquino, under what is considered the worst administration in Philippine history, has Filipinos debating on how to reconstruct our sorry nation; accordingly, it is a time when the next presidential election is months away.  Given these circumstances, where does poetry stand?

I would be the last person to advocate political propaganda over aesthetics in literature (though aesthetics is never stripped of politics, let us keep the term politics to its social and economic nuances for the meantime).  But one has to ask, where do writers get the motivation to write despite knowing there is barely an audience who care about what they are saying.  We are a poor (economically and culturally) country.  We can barely feed our bodies, what more our minds with this foie gras of a poem.

Poetry is insignificant in these times and in this country.  I almost wrote useless, but wrote insignificant instead.  I have long resigned to poetry’s uselessness, but I am not ready to give up on its importance yet.

2.

To those of us who exert energy, invest time and money in a specific enterprise, it is inevitable that we ask, Why am I doing this? What for? To which some poets’ reflex response may be, No reason necessary.  Well and good.

I have no problems with the poet’s arrogance.  He needs it.  No one else will best acknowledge his worth and his work than himself.  It only becomes a problem when he starts to deplore the artistic environment he is a part of and does nothing about it.  It is as simple as reacting to a bad piece of work.  What is good and bad art is always subject for debate.  That is no news to us.  What is astonishing is that no one is debating about it.

Literary and artistic scandals—the most recent being the National Artist Awards—at one point excite writers as there will again be something to buzz about (showbiz gossip predominantly influences the culture we have).  To an outsider (and perhaps to some writers), it exhibits how passionate and protective they are of artistic institutions.  But I am quickly reminded of criticisms against Filipinos’ passivity.  While we associate artists with revolutionaries and bearers of truth, the existence of these scandals and the absence of artistic debates show how even they (whom we want to look up to) lack the honesty and resolve to keep at least Philippine art progressive.

3.

Poetry would not be perceived as a snobbish academician’s business worthy of contempt and dismissal (we are lucky if the perception is far from the fact) if those who practice it take the cliché seriously: artistic integrity.

Some modes of “poetic” thinking and practice that have been observed in the past years until now are:

  1. Eager to be accepted and get published—copy tried and tested formulations;
  2. Afraid of sounding boring—write verses that would least resemble what is considered the norm;
  3. Gay poetry that is more gay than it is poetry.

Given the three, where is the real critical study and understanding of poetry?  Much of poetic technique is based on what feels right instead of consciously delineated standards.  Or based on agendas wherein poetry is not the primary consideration, but the writer.

(If I may digress—What, say, happened to poetic devices that make the poem an aural art?  What happened to rhyme?  Where did rhythm go?  Aspiring poets may have been given the memorandum that not all that has rhyme and meter is a poem, but where do they get the idea that nothing can be gained by these devices anymore?)

This is not to say that we are without excellent writers and that there are no venues to help cultivate the craft, but one has to wonder why a lot of published works never seem to have passed any kind of inspection.

4.

To have the nation reading, it takes a lot of work and a bit of a miracle.  To problematize why we do not read critically or at all is to problematize education is to problematize poverty is to problematize government.  It really is up to you if you want to put responsibility on the government, the people, or sheer luck.  What we know for sure is that it is a complex problem requiring a creative solution that would take time, if we are intent on solving it in the first place.  And that is if we all agree that reading critically is important.

How can poetry stand in a nation of non-readers?  The answer is: it stands, because it does not talk to the nation.  Poets and poems talk amongst themselves.

Filipino poets know there is no such thing as national readership, not even a readership within the capital.  And university readership is a myth.  What is interesting to note is how much they care about this condition and how they act upon it.  Some of them may not be bothered at all with extra-literary matters; they simply write, while some wish what is left of the poetic institution would be more daring and creative.  Some shove poetry into trains.  Some, I suppose, are happy with the status quo—if silence can be interpreted as such.

I have no answers to lend to the national reading dilemma (or I have some ideas, but that’s subject for another discussion).  I do believe, however, that we do not have to wait for the country to get its act together before the poetry community can.

Poetry is not being read as much, not because the reading public is generally uninterested in it, but because of the lack of good poetry and criticism to filter and promote good writing.  If creative writing students and those who willingly engage themselves in poetry are confused about what constitute good art, or do not attain a high degree of confidence in their valuation of art—why this poem gets praises and the other does not, why this collection wins an award, etc.—what more the public?

5.

It is not difficult to be convinced that poetry is alive in the Philippines, if by alive we mean breathing.  Books are published, students take creative writing courses, workshops abound, and once in a while there are essays about it.  I sometimes wonder if these kids who take CW degrees were pressured by their parents (Anak, tumula ka), or encouraged by their peers (Ano’ng kukunin mong kurso?  Ako kasi, gusto kong maging makata…). It is interesting (and entertaining) to think about what compels one to write.  And when you ask them, they will give you the most—poetic—responses (To make sense of things; To turn chaos into order; I love words…). Not the answers writers are sometimes accused of (to be popular among girls, to get a promotion in the English department).  Whatever the writer’s motivations for writing are, I am always humbled by seeing how poetry does not need us; we are the ones who need poetry.  (If one agrees that language is important, it is in poetry that one can find the best techniques to manipulate it.)

Apparently, while there are a number of Filipinos who see value in poetry, not a lot bother to keep its integrity.  We care, but are not critical, about it.

Poetry will matter if we write good poems and if we keep our poetic and extra-literary practices in constant check—which is to say, if those of us who care about it act as if it truly matters.  (For starters, let us not talk behind each others’ backs.  Go beyond descriptions of a book in reviews; provide judgment.  Write regular reviews in the first place.  Evaluate why our responses to a piece of writing are such.)  This may be a long shot and something I will definitely not witness in my lifetime, but I am still romantic enough to hope for and declare it anyway:  That poetry becomes an integral part of our artistic consciousness and that the arts become a part of our intellectual consciousness, because if we can afford it, then that would mean our country has truly risen above its sorry state.

NOTES:

  1. Opening quote is by Jose Garcia Villa.
  2. Poetic standards and the need for criticism are subjects for another discussion.
  3. Like the titular question, most of what is said here may not be new, or has been better argued before.  But I’ll find ways of restating it if only to save it from having the life of a cliché.