Saturday, December 19, 2009

FEATURE ARTICLE: ON THE PHILIPPINES' 2009 NATIONAL ARTIST AWARDS

[Note: Click on links for information about the Philippines' NATIONAL ARTIST AWARDS and the CONTROVERSY surrounding it in 2009.]


Grieving over the grief of others: a dialogue

Donna Miranda and Angelo "Gelo" V. Suarez shout foul at the folks who shout foul over the 2009 National Artist Awards controversy.

GELO:
A mob of artists—including a handful of big-named National Artists—protest President GMA's intervention in & the consequent results of the recent National Artist Awards by means of necrological services & a grim procession on August 7, billed as “Luksang Bayan,” to mark the death of the National Artist Award itself: I'm not sure w/c is funnier, or w/c is the bigger joke—this protest-performance w/c is actually quite clever in its crassness (I would like to think its lack of conceptual sophistication is deliberate, to heighten its dark humor in the tradition of, say, Ren & Stimpy), or the actual results of the National Artist Awards w/c, if one is to examine them more thoroughly, might signal some kind of progress in our perception of what art is & what art can be.


DONNA:
The arts and culture sector must be secretly enjoying this newfound purpose and nationwide attention they've long been waiting for. Some would probably think that this was an apocalyptic long-overdue shot in the arm for the plague of the staid cultural elite long after its not-so-successful takeover since Marcos. Recall the swarm of t-shirt-clad artist types who bolted through the CCP in the 1980s to declare the triumph of democracy in art over fascism. Yet what is particularly disturbing about this rather belated act of civic concern is its tendency to favor the simplistic parochial politics it is itself fighting against. Even more so is the a-historical naivety that reduces art (and conversely cultural politics) into a pure autonomous object. A sterile grievance that only reinforces the loopholes of an already faulty institution that is the National Artist Award.


GELO:
This illusion of autonomy is dangerous, & more so the fact that it remains unacknowledged. Must a presidential award—and the National Artist Award is one such award—be wrenched away from the President's control simply because it's in the realm of the arts? Is culture so static that it can only continually rest in the hands of a nameless set of supposed experts on culture? If there's anything progressive at all w/in the already-faulty domain of these awards, it's the fact that the President finally & truly seizes control: For once, there is a face to who calls the shots, to who makes the decisions. Leaving it to the supposed ‘wisdom’ of certain institutions—forces of influence who in their very abstraction hide the ideological formation of their various historical subjectivities—is the more thoroughly problematic option, for it gives the false impression that their choices are not tainted, as if their criteria were not ideologically informed, as if there existed the possibility of a purely objective set of standards. The parochial politics we mention here is more dubious than covert back-patting & offstage favoritism we’re all already familiar w/, these being methods of judgement that rightly call attention to the subjective nature of selection in any awarding system. Here we refer to having a set of people—judges and arbiters of taste—who are pompous enough to declare that only their declarations hold water, if only by virtue of their expertise, as if their expertise were transparent & ideology-free.


DONNA:
Perhaps before swaggering our cute little dirty accusing fingers up in the air (a national past time that proves more satisfying next to the weekly doses of showbiz chismis we have grown to live with) and shout foul at another obvious transgression of power, we should painfully acknowledge the ideological precedents and premises that the National Artist Awards implicate. What accords the obvious prestige and notoriety of this award, immediately provoking everyone’s imagination and deep-seated sense of transcendence, is the fact that it capitalizes on our sense of ‘nation.’ As if it imbibed a primordial inherence that is devoid of fascist overtones. Remember back in school when we were force-fed national symbols to display our sense of pride, nationhood, and legitimacy? Markers that proved we belonged to an international global community, civilized and with heritage. There is a reason why the late Ferdinand Marcos poured money into those archeological projects back in the ‘70s, even to the point of canonizing Elizalde for ‘discovering’ the Tasadays which actually turned out to be a hoax. Even the excavations in Palawan, yielding the Tabon Man, were no coincidence. Blind romanticism will of course make us believe that this either springs as a purely philanthropist act or a pompous display of wealth. It is no secret however that even philanthropy is not devoid of influence. Point is that nation is not, or never was, as stable a concept as our innocent and ‘pure’ artist minds would like to think. Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities easily comes to mind when he points out that a nation is “an imagined political community imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” Thus it makes complete sense that the National Artist Awards came at one of the most fragile times in Philippine contemporary history. And what easier way to legitimize sovereignty than through the deceiving appearance of art.


GELO:
& this is exactly why I say GMA's intervention is a progressive move: Having explicitly called the shots, she calls attention to the fact that the selection of National Artists is thru & thru a political project—that it is in the first place a way of legitimizing sovereignty—echoing all the anecdotes you've mentioned in this singular act of intervention, historicizing (albeit unintentionally) the National Artist Award itself by putting it in its proper ideological context. Will leaving it to the arbitration of, say, solely the NCCA & its harem of experts make it any less of a means of legitimizing sovereignty? Of course not; that would make it even more dangerous because it masks traces of ideology. To believe that leaving the choice to the abstraction of expertise makes it less subjective is in itself, in your words, “blind romanticism”—& to be frank about this, I would rather live in a society that can take Carlo J. Caparas as a National Artist while admitting he has been selected thru wholly subjective means than in a society that celebrates BenCab as a National Artist while pretending that there are universal & objective standards of quality in artmaking that he has met. (I will not even begin talking about how CJC has expanded more my own perception of what can be done in artistic practice than BenCab ever has, not that either of them has been exceptionally influential for me.)


DONNA:
And who says one cannot be ambitious and earnest? Or both earnest and manipulative at the same time? While still uncertain if GMA's intervention may be considered uncouth or a sophisticated maneuver to strip democracy of its historic affective illusions or the National Artist Award of its ideological deception, her move undeniably disrupts the heavily guarded hegemonic stability of our esteemed cultural institutions. Institutions like the CCP, NCCA, and the National Artist Awards committee itself, who I suspect are themselves unaware of (if not turning a deaf ear to) the symbolic-ideological constructs that allow them to exist. This is why this single act of ‘dagdag-bawas’ is almost a radical one because it unwittingly exposes the power mechanisms inherent in art awards or any award for that matter. That it is first and foremost wrought by inter-subjectivities. Perhaps this may as well be the reason why this particular sector is crying foul, like spoiled teenager brats, because mom decided to redecorate the room. And the dogs that we all are, we have but to protect our territories. It matters not that GMA has added CJC out of her whim or cajole close associates into including him. Whether he is deserving or not is beside the point. The function to assert sovereignty is embedded in the National Artist Award, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact I will go as far as say that it is necessary. CJC's insertion as National Artist is purely procedural the way BenCab's proclamation is. And so, if that mob of artists must be consoled for this consuming melodrama that has already reached soap-opera/Congressional hearing proportions then maybe it must be said that the National Artist Award has really no business in art and artistic practice.


GELO:
But is it possible that, perhaps, what these disgruntled artists also need consolation for is the notion that GMA herself emerges as the outstanding artist here, that she has beaten them to such a wide-reaching conceptual project w/ major political overtones? This is Duchampian displacement on a national scale: the urinal wrenched from the comfort room & recontextualized at the gallery, CJC's cinema from the commercial comforts of, say, SM & onto art's institutional pedestals in the Philippines. GMA's decision to have Cecile Guidote Alvarez proclaimed as National Artist for Theater is especially interesting to note here: What w/ the founding of PETA (Philippine Educational Theater Association) already over 40 years behind us, it would be pointless, simply pointless, to hark back to that as Guidote's major contribution to Philippine theater. It is, in fact, Guidote's participation in numerous institutional bureaucracies of late that is re-assessed by GMA's intervention in the National Artist Awards, re-articulated as performance: Not only does theater itself have internal bureaucracies, bureaucracy itself is theater. Bureaucratic praxis as theatrical praxis: What a radical revaluation our President seems to have chanced upon!


DONNA:
GMA again supersedes where most have failed, by way of a preemptive intervention into the territorial interstices of Philippine art politics. Displacing its hegemonic artistic elite by demonstrating what art is all about. Effectively toppling down the comfortable barriers of aesthetic intellectualization, expressive artistic excesses and the everyday. In fact her intervention proves more meaningful, if not altogether more refreshing, than any original innovative definitive Filipino playwright’s. Throwing out the almost staid preoccupation with identity politics and nativist modes of return. Where theater is a means to reflect upon ‘what the hell it is all about,’ GMA's appointment of Guidote demonstrates what Grotowski pertains to as “that which we do is what it is and we do not pretend it is anything else.” Probably even challenging the transparency of bureaucracy by breaking the perceptive mirror that supposedly reflects onto itself and declaring that its system of checks-and-balances is itself the theater.


GELO:
Funny how artists love appropriating the world for their own praxis—all the world's a stage! as Shakespeare famously put it (or in edgier conceptualist-speak, echoing Huebler, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more”)—but just absolutely hate circumstances where the world itself appropriates art. Is not all the stage in itself a world too, w/ its own filthy baggage of micro-politics? & the truly liberating thing to do is not at all to purge the stage, or the whole of art as locally practiced for that matter, of politics, but to acknowledge that politics is inherently part & parcel of artistic practice. If only for reminding us of this fact, GMA should be given a pat on the back, or a kiss on the mole. I love how apt your mention of the system of checks-&-balances is, especially in this context of abuse: The agitated artists shout that GMA's intervention constitutes an abuse of power, but are they not themselves being abusive in their self-righteous attempt to police the President in her very conferment of a presidential award to awardees of her choosing? Artists, too, must develop a kind of self-reflexivity that will allow them to have an implicit system of checks-and-balances—one w/ w/c to also, hopefully, police themselves.


DONNA:
And if this were a primetime television soap opera or Broadway musical unfolding, this would propose a rather unconventional plot, what with the complex character shifts—the antagonist totalitarian ruler metamorphosing into protagonist hero. Here willfully taking the blow for an already capricious tradition such as National Artist Award. Not with the charming false modesty typical of our favorite matinee idols nor the good-natured humility of a wise leader, but with the hip rebelliousness of a rock star. Only this one is even sexier, as GMA manages to perform with procedural transparency by having the balls to enact her veto power, which the artistic community so pompously thought empty. She gave her veto a face. Not only did she play her part well but managed to transform the part by becoming an impostor, a master of illusions. Meanwhile, the aggrieved protagonists are crippled, reduced to armchair revolutionaries caught up in their own petty narcissistic demands, preferring to avoid the burden of taking over. Whose very spirits rely on the negative space occupied by the enemy, to guarantee that the whole structure (even their own necessity for being) is preserved. “The heroism of an authentic Master consists precisely in his willingness to assume the impossible position of ultimate responsibility, and to take upon himself the implementation of unpopular measures which will prevent the system for disintegrating" (Zizek). The domain where artists are typified as cool, hip, sophisticated agitators is precisely where GMA has managed to boot them out. Here she agitates the system by tacitly playing (and transforming) her part. So if any mourning has to be done, it perhaps should be directed at the artists themselves. Not for their lack of vigilance nor lack of conceptual sophistication, not for their crass, overly reactionary tendencies but for the self-righteous claims that art is devoid of politics.


GELO:
Given that there is no way to extricate art from politics anyway, one is tempted to say there is merit in the marginal claim that the National Artist Award must be dissolved—just as the collective delusion of a national identity must be dissolved. But while this is certainly the less naive alternative over the clamor to cleanse the selection procedure (as if a pure method for plucking a pure candidate from the pure Tree of Philippine Art were possible), all the more it begs the question, "But won't dissolution of the National Artist Award only further mask the fact that art is imbued w/ politics, won't it mystify to a greater extent the existence of a politico-cultural elite whose tastes threaten to take over even in the absence of award-giving bodies?" (One cannot really think the ghastly shadow cast by the astounding BenCab monolith, for example, will disappear once he has been stripped of his National Artist Award, can s/he?) In fact, all the more the National Artist Award remains significant & necessary, for the same excuse raised by the proponents of its dissolution: It politicizes artistic praxis in the Philippines, & its performance of declaration calls attention to its own political nature. If anything needs to be cleansed, it's not at all our processes of evaluation & selection; it's the mindset that still believes an apolitical or post-ideological evaluation & selection are possible. We shouldn’t do away w/ the National Artist Award just because it is dirty, nor should we strive for the conferment of a clean National Artist Award: We need to keep it dirty, & we need to keep it because it’s dirty.

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