The last time the National Artist Awards became the talk of the town, it left a bitter taste in the mouth. This was in 2009, when then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo virtually thrashed an honors system designed, as its mandate says, to embody “the nation’s highest ideals in humanism and aesthetic expression through the distinct achievements of individual citizens,” with a display of patronage politics at its most crass and sordid.
That year, the bodies tasked to administer the awards, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Cultural Center of the Philippines, jointly recommended four names to the nation’s creative pantheon: composer Ramon Santos, painter Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, the late Tagalog novelist Lazaro Francisco and the late filmmaker Manuel Conde. However, instead of hewing to the list—a result of rigorous vetting and selection by the NCCA and CCP in consultation with other leading artists, culture workers and experts—Arroyo crossed out Santos and added four names of her own choosing: komiks writer and “massacre” filmmaker Carlo J. Caparas, then presidential adviser on arts and culture Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, fashion designer Pitoy Moreno and architect Francisco Mañosa.
Moreno and Mañosa more or less emerged unscathed from the uproar that followed, which focused on Caparas, who many felt was flatly unqualified for the award, and Guidote-Alvarez, whose case as the founder of the Philippine Educational Theater Association, one of the country’s most important and established theater companies, could be argued—except that her position as NCCA executive director and presidential adviser on culture and arts made her last-minute inclusion in the short list patently self-serving and unethical.
Arroyo’s unprecedented move was stopped dead in its tracks only by a Supreme Court injunction ordering Malacañang not to proceed with the conferment of titles. That resolution, which ordered all sides to observe the status quo until the high court could rule on the dispute, came down on Aug. 25, 2009—or two years and eight months ago. So far, nothing more has been heard of the case. Arroyo’s “dagdag-bawas” batch of National Artist appointees remains in limbo; unfortunately, they have also dragged with them the legitimate and truly qualified nominees who, until now, are stuck in the same legal murk, deprived of the formal acclamation due them.
It’s against this sorry background that recent developments, which have brought talk of the National Artist Awards back in the public consciousness, should be weighed against. Bacolod City Rep. Anthony Golez got the chatter going when he filed a resolution seeking the proclamation of actress Nora Aunor as National Artist. Perhaps more a fan of Aunor’s most enduring screen rival, House Deputy Speaker Lorenzo “Erin” Tañada then called for Vilma Santos, who has transitioned from actress to successful politician as the current governor of Batangas province, to likewise be declared one. The petitions immediately ignited a hubbub, with some members of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines even getting in on the act by publicly batting for their favored bets.
Is it Aunor and Santos’ time to be conferred the National Artist medallion? Perhaps. But as Sen. Jinggoy Estrada pointed out, a few others might be more deserving of it at this point—the nation’s “Comedy King,” for instance, because “Dolphy is overdue for this award. We should give him that recognition while he is still with us.” There is also Eddie Garcia, another cinema giant whose extraordinarily versatile and decades-long body of work goes much farther than either Santos’ or Aunor’s.
The larger point is, whether it’s Dolphy or Garcia or Aunor or Santos, let their nomination or eventual selection be the product of transparent, objective and conscientious appraisal, and not, like the last time, the mutant spawn of political accommodation by way of presidential fiat. The scandal involving Caparas and Guidote-Alvarez has shown how governmental abuse can tarnish even the field of arts and culture—a domain that’s supposed to strive, often against daunting odds given this country’s chronic indifference to it, for what’s edifying and truthful in the nation’s soul.
The last round of National Artist proceedings may still be mired in unpleasantness, but now is an opportunity for Malacañang to make sure that the process of recognizing the country’s greatest artists once again lends real honor to them, to their legacies, and to the nation they’ve enriched with their gifts.