Yesterday morning on TV, comics creator and filmmaker Carlo J. Caparas let out a mouthful against National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario, who had led a group of petitioners in August 2009 in questioning at the Supreme Court the conferment of national-artist honors on Caparas and on three others—theater stalwart Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, architect Francisco Mañosa and fashion designer Jose “Pitoy” Moreno.
The four names had not been among those shortlisted by the selection committee composed of members of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Cultural Center of the Philippines. In the original shortlist were filmmakers Manuel Urbano, visual artist Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, novelist Lazaro Francisco, and composer Ramon Santos. But in what was, in effect, a “dagdag-bawas” operation, Malacañang came out with a new list that dropped Santos, retained Urbano, Francisco and Alcuaz, and added Caparas, Guidote-Alvarez, Mañosa and Moreno. Then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s personal choices for national artist were now the majority in the list, occasioning such a hue and cry from the artistic community that the Supreme Court ordered a stop to the proclamations.
Three days ago, or some four years later, the Supreme Court wrote finis to the saga by voiding Arroyo’s proclamation of her four choices, declaring the act as “having been issued with grave abuse of discretion” because “the manifest disregard of the rules, guidelines and processes of the NCCA and CCP was an arbitrary act that unduly favored Guidote-Alvarez, Caparas, Mañosa and Moreno.”
Can anything be more crystal-clear? The Supreme Court, in other words, ruled that Arroyo’s action was to be set aside simply because it violated the selection process for national artists. “The former president’s constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws and observe the rules, guidelines and policies of the NCCA and CCP as to the selection of the nominees for the conferment of the Order of National Artists proscribed her from having a free and uninhibited hand in the conferment of the award,” the high court said.
No judgment was made on the artistic qualifications of the nominees, whether their body of work—much less any popular or mainstream acclaim it commanded—entitled them to a slot in the shortlist. This was essentially the same ground invoked by Almario et al. in their petition, which argued that Arroyo’s decision to disregard the rules to favor her choices “dilutes the process and, in a way, cheapens it,” as National Artist for Film Eddie Romero put it then. “The President only needs to respect the rules,” National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera said.
It’s a point the Supreme Court agreed with. But there was Caparas on TV, fulminating that the controversy was primarily driven by envy of him. His words, verbatim: “Alam mo, Almario, pambansang alagad ka ng sining, noong una kitang makita sa PUP, komo napakaraming estudyanteng nagpapapirma sa akin… nasa isang tabi ka na walang lumalapit sa ’yo, kita ko na sa mukha mo ang inggit sa akin noong panahon na ’yun eh, na idinadaos mo ngayon… Sinasabi ko nga sa kanya eh, komo ang kanyang kakayahan napakaliit, yung taong makita niyang may malaking kakayahan, may malaking nagagawa sa sambayanan, kinaiinggitan nila eh, kabilang siya.”
Is this plain cluelessness or still bitter denial that Arroyo’s action accorded him unfair advantage over others? Whatever, the sordid episode that had regrettably also dragged with it a worthy candidate such as Mañosa is now a footnote. In the case of Alcuaz, Francisco and Urbano, whose proclamations were left unremarked on by the Supreme Court, their official status remains in limbo. Alcuaz died in 2011 without the state funeral and honors accorded national artists, given the pending case at that time.
Their official proclamation at the soonest possible time should serve as a fitting closure to the controversy. It would also be the final rebuke to what Arroyo had tried to do, which was to extend the dirty hand of politics even into the arts to reward friends such as Caparas (and Guidote-Alvarez, who, while a recognized theater pioneer, was NCCA head at that time—a clear case of conflict of interest) with a national honor that is reserved for Filipino artists chosen through a rigorous, aboveboard vetting process.