What was Malacañang thinking, anyway? That it could exclude Nora Aunor from the list of new National Artists it was declaring, and the public would react with a shrug? That it could strike out her name without even a perfunctory explanation, and no one would care?
The shortlist of candidates for National Artist drawn up by the joint board of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Cultural Center of the Philippines was forwarded to Malacañang for President Aquino’s signature many months ago; it was reportedly signed last April. But the President’s imprimatur was neither automatic nor pro forma. The Malacañang Honors Committee, an obscure body that the public first heard of during the waning days of the Arroyo administration when it forced additional names into the list submitted by the NCCA-CCP, has apparently been retained; it was to spend more months supposedly doing additional vetting on those recommended for the highest state award for the arts.
Let’s set aside for a moment the patent irregularity in that setup—that a shortlist drawn up after assiduous, sometimes rancorous, discussion by artists and cultural workers themselves could be overturned by Palace bureaucrats whose familiarity with, or interest in, the work of Filipino artists and their creative legacies is questionable at best. The names of the Honors Committee members—Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, Presidential Management Staff chief Julia Abad, Presidential Protocol chief Celia Anna Feria, and a couple of other functionaries—are hardly grounds to reasonably conclude that they are in a good position to pass judgment on the work of Cirilo Bautista for literature, Alice Reyes for dance, Ramon Santos for music, et al.
But pass judgment they did. Based on the Honors Committee’s recommendation to the President, Bautista, Reyes and Santos were proclaimed, along with Francisco Coching (visual arts), Francisco Feliciano (music) and Jose Maria Zaragoza (architecture, design and allied arts).
Everyone on the list submitted by the NCCA-CCP—except Aunor.
As it happens, it was Aunor who reportedly garnered the highest number of votes during the NCCA-CCP deliberations. It is Aunor’s body of work that’s also the most iconic and celebrated of all the nominees, and whose impact on Filipino pop culture and mass entertainment is incontestable.
Ignoring the actress for whatever reason—and compounding that snub by dismissing the need for any explanation—was bound, at the very least, to raise questions. But Malacañang apparently never considered that possibility; the uproar that ensued once again caught it completely by surprise.
What exactly did the President’s advisers deliberate on in the many months they spent ostensibly revisiting the shortlist? So far, the most plausible explanation from the grapevine for the rejection was that Aunor’s felony conviction in the United States for drug possession amounted to a major criminal offense that, under equivalent laws, would have netted her about 20 years in a local jail—and that kind of record is anathema to someone of National Artist standing. Fine; it’s a good point for discussion, especially in a country as generally indifferent to the arts as ours is: how far personal morality should count in considering and appreciating an artist’s contribution to his/her community.
But the public can’t even have the satisfaction of that debate because Malacañang would rather not talk about its decision to rebuff Aunor. Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma would only assert that it’s the President’s prerogative to affirm, or not, the National Artist
recommendations—a prerogative that, in all the current outcry, has never been in question.
No one in the President’s top-heavy communications circle even anticipated that approving all the names in the list except the biggest one would be controversial (and thus no one prepared not only a proper rollout but also a good enough response to possible criticism)? No one in that overstaffed office imagined that this issue could spiral into yet another PR debacle (for an administration that has had one too many over the years, and yet still fumbles every time)?
Who needs enemies when this administration demonstrates time and again its unerring capacity to shoot itself in the foot?
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