“If I had the choice,” says Edgardo Angara, chair of the Senate education committee and board member of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, “I would have given the title to Dolphy while he was still alive, if only to show appreciation for the unique talent he possessed. Dolphy is really more than deserving of the National Artist award…. What he did was an extraordinary thing—making the entire Filipino people laugh.”
But that’s precisely the point: You don’t have the choice. No government official does, not even the President. Art is not a province of public administration, art is not a subject for legislation. Thankfully, the Supreme Court showed enough wisdom to side with Bienvenido Lumbera, Virgilio Almario, and other National Artists in their protest against Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo elevating Carlo Caparas and Cecile Guidote-Alvarez to that station. The point was not the choice of awardees—which in this case sucked—the point was the right of the President, fake or not, to name anybody National Artist. She, or he, has none.
Government does not lack for ways to honor people it considers as having contributed enormously to society. I applaud Bernadette Herrera-Dy for filing a resolution for Congress to bestow the Congressional Medal of Distinction to Dolphy, the same award it gave to Manny Pacquiao in 2010. I applaud the Manila council for passing a resolution to mourn the passing of a favorite son. And I applaud P-Noy for awarding Dolphy the Grand Collar of the Order of the Golden Heart when he was still very much alive.
But I do not applaud public officials cajoling the NCCA and the Cultural Center of the Philippines to give the National Artist award to Dolphy because of the depth of public grief at his passing. I do not applaud family and friends importuning the President to declare Dolphy outright National Artist. I do not even applaud the public clamor, however much of it is spontaneous, demanding that Dolphy be made so because he spent a lifetime making the country laugh.
I myself think Dolphy should be seriously considered for the honor, and, barring somebody else whose artistic accomplishments are far more formidable, should be one of its strongest contenders. Paradoxically, not the least of reasons for my believing this is precisely the spontaneous outpouring of grief and love shown for him when he died, notwithstanding that it wasn’t altogether sudden or unexpected. He was already knocking on heaven’s door—Filipinos can have no doubt about which door it was—a week or so before he went. I’m one of those, courtesy of an activist background, who believe that art entails a dialogue between the artist and an audience. That audience may be a nascent one, the one that exists in the future rather than the present, which is the unhappy lot of visionary artists, but an audience nonetheless. Art cannot exist in a vacuum, like blast-frozen canned meat.
I don’t buy elitist snobbery, “in the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo,” which equates popularity with commerce and effectively bars the popular performer from the ranks of great artists, if not artists per se. Which comedians in particular are heir to. Even the Oscars are not immune to that, which was why it introduced the “Lifetime Achievement” award at some point to make up for the rarity with which it hands out the statuette to comedians. Charlie Chaplin was one of the victims of the monstrous oversight. Not incidentally, though he was a far cry from Chaplin, Bob Hope received that award in 1952 for “contribution to the laughter of the world.”
Maybe Dolphy can get the same thing from the CCP or NCCA, if he fails to get the National Artist award this year.
But making people laugh is by itself not a natural claim to the National Artist award. Nor indeed dying, however copious the tears it induces. Tito, Vic and Joey have spent a lifetime making people laugh, too. In their lifetimes, so did Pugo, Chiquito, Dolphy’s partner Panchito, and a host of others. What made Dolphy stand out among them is not just his longevity. It is that he improved on what he found, raising comedy from slapstick to wit, from hitting people in the head with a folded newspaper when comedians ran out of things to say (much of the dialogue was improvised banter with the barest outline of a script to keep things together) to dishing out quips on the ironies of life. Behind real comedy, as all the great comedians have said, is real tragedy. Behind the laughter is the tears. Dolphy was an exponent of that, Dolphy was past master of that.
That is what entitles him to become National Artist.
But that is not my choice either. I can only press my point with a view to contributing to the discussion. The choice belongs to the NCCA and CCP, the choice belongs to the artists.
Are artists vulnerable to politics themselves? Are artists capable of being petty themselves? Well, the history of awards for artists by artists in this country is not very mute testimony to it. I still recall how “Burlesk Queen,” a movie of great merit, caused a furor when it swept all the awards except two, forcing the Manila Film Festival judges to void all the awards afterward. And I remember that the Free Press then, to dispel the suspicion of politics or favoritism in literary awards, asked the judges to explain their decisions in an issue of the magazine.
Yes, artists are prey to politics, too, artists can be petty, too. But it’s as Winston Churchill said of democracy: It’s a horrible system, except that all the others are worse. Ask the politicians to rule on it, and that’s worse. Ask the public to vote on it, and that’s just as worse. It’s not perfect, asking the artists to judge art. It’s, well, tragicomic.
But, still, leave it to them.