Much ado about something | Inquirer Opinion
There’s the Rub

Much ado about something

The artists are up in arms. Bienvenido Lumbera and Felipe de Leon are furious over the exclusion of Nora Aunor from the ranks of national artists. “The Office of the President,” says Lumbera, “owes the CCP and the NCCA an explanation for the insulting disregard of the choice of Nora Aunor for national artist. I ask fellow national artists and other artists to protest it.”

De Leon went further and asked Aunor’s fans, and indeed the public itself, to do so. “Concerned groups should initiate this move.”


I’m with them body and soul on this.

The exclusion of Aunor from the ranks of national artists is a glaring wrong. It is wrong on artistic grounds, and it is wrong on national grounds.


The artistic grounds are patent. The final deliberation panel for national artists consists of the heads of the joint boards of the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. “Aunor was chosen as National Artist not by fans but by a panel of experts who discussed, dissected and deliberated on the nominations thoroughly,” says Lumbera. “She received more than the required number of votes (majority plus one). She was the popular choice.”

That is as ironclad a judgment by a jury of peers as they come. In fact, the choice of Aunor for national artist is an easy one to make.

This isn’t like the case of Dolphy, which posed formidable aesthetic problems, with pros and cons aplenty going for and against it. Arguably, Dolphy was the most influential postwar comic in Philippine history, though I myself think his biggest accomplishment came not from what he did but from what he did not do. He did not run for public office, dismissing the thought with sublime “Dolphic” wit: “Madaling tumakbo, kaso, e kung manalo?” (Easy to run, but the problem is, what if I win?) But his body of work was, to say the least, spotty—the sorry overrunning the grand like weeds overrunning the flowers in a garden.

Nor is this like the case of Carlo Caparas, which had the artists, the national artists at the head of them, up in arms as well, for quite the opposite reason. Which was his inclusion in the ranks of the greats. That one was a no-brainer, however he and his supporters tried to make it so. Quantity is not quality, least of all in art. And popularity is not artistry, least of all in art. For sheer output, Caparas has few peers, but much of it is superficial, if not derivative. And if popularity is a criterion for becoming national artist, all the actors of the soap operas would be national artists by now. Caparas is a hugely successful storyteller: He should be content to leave it at that.

You go through Aunor’s body of work and you’d be blind, or envious, or not an artist at all, to begrudge her becoming a national one. Though her long filmography is littered with throwaways too, particularly when she was just starting out, they glitter with no end of gems. “Minsan May Isang Gamu-gamo,” “Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?,” “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos,” “Himala,” “The Flor Contemplacion Story,” to name but a few: Those things alone qualify her as national artist.

The national grounds are just as prodigious, if not entirely patent.

President Aquino’s spokespersons say he does not owe the artists, or the public, any explanation at all. The Office of the President itself puts it this way: “It is well within the President’s power to proclaim all, or some or even none of the recommendees without having to justify his or her action.”


The argument for this is that the CCP and NCCA, which administer the National Artist Awards, are government bodies. Which is why the President has the final say on who should be named national artists. The law allows him to. The law says he can veto the decisions. The law says he can choose not to name a national artist at all.

Well, if the law says that, then scrap the freaking law.

It has no business being there. It’s all of a piece with that other law that created the Commission on Appointments. Indeed, it is no small irony that the President should inflict upon others what he himself has been a victim of. It’s a matter of competence. The President is no more qualified to pass judgment on who ought to become national artist than the Commission on Appointments, which labors from partisanship and self-interest, is qualified to pass judgment on who ought to become government officials.

I did propose that that commission be scrapped, and I do propose that the law allowing the president to have the final say on national artists be scrapped. It’s absolute lack of common sense, the one thing Thomas Paine proposed—to banish the nonsense that’s plaguing government. A president has no business arbitrating on matters about art, be he P-Noy or any other president.

Either scrap the president’s role in the National Artist Awards or make it completely titular or honorific. In acknowledgment at least of the national artists’ stipends—never has money been put to better use—being taxpayer money. Cory Aquino, for one, understood it thus and—as pointed out by those protesting the Aunor snub—did not interfere during her time when Lucrecia Kasilag, a supporter of Ferdinand Marcos, was named National Artist for Music.

Opening the National Artist Awards to presidential discretion, or intervention, will guarantee, not quality, but tyranny. It is no wonder that the historical figures associated with this folly were out-and-out despots—Hitler, who fancied himself an artist, though he was at least an art student who longed to build the greatest art museum in history, and Stalin, who fancied himself all sorts of things, which qualified him only for the funny farm. Leave the artists well enough alone.

Politics is too important to leave to politicians, art is too important to bring in politicians.

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