Sunday, March 5, 2000

Rumors of a National Artist Award Proclamation

image borrowed from

IN countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, or even Britain, "national artists" (poets, novelists, etc.) are "national" by virtue of the adulation and patronage accorded them by their nation (never mind if by an adulating "nation" it may amount to just that nation's educated class). The "national" label on them would not be by the whims of either a 6-year term government or a "culture committee"-cum-clique.
     In the Philippines, it's common knowledge among musicians that "charting" music records are declared so not by market sales (CD singles are not sold or bought here) but by a radio or TV station. The station staff's job includes---at best---enjoining signed artists to have their friends call the FM or TV station to request for the artists' songs, or---at its worst---receiving through their program directors or individual deejays/veejays record company or artist payola in exchange for airplay. Musicians know that "national artists" in popular music, as endorsed by their industry friends (as the "bagong kilabot ng Pilipinas," for instance) instead of by the nation, exist like a joke. Such taglines demean (at least subconsciously while the artists enjoy their radio or TV breakthrough) their achievements in their field. Still, such cheating feats of marketing may yet be tested on the nation, and one is either embraced or denied affection by the people, confirming or denying the marketing tag. Should an embrace of the artist on a national scope be the result of the marketing, the true "national"-ness of an artist begins. That's putting aside, of course, the various and contending qualifiers for being truly "national."

IT IS, however, different in the less popular art fields. In these fields, I cringe at the mention of "national artists," not because most of the nominees unto these rosters don't deserve a national audience and patronage, far from it, but because the word "national" is traditionally understood to mean as belonging to a people/market instead of merely (or primarily) to a "cultured" elite, much less to such entities as a roster of tastemakers placed at the cultural centers of the planet's various republics. I have been made to understand by my education that one becomes national only after an acceptance or recognition by a nation.
     I have been prompted to write these notes by the circulating rumors that one of the recipients this year of the National Artist of the Philippines title shall be the President's (Joseph Estrada's) friend, Ernani Cuenco. . . . I have no quarrel with the idea of composer Cuenco receiving an honor. Nor even with the possible truism that Cuenco is "national," even if a survey is to be done all over the country that might debunk such a claim. In fact, count me in as another Cuenco fan. But while I aver that the word "national" must be (re)contextualized, my humble contention is not towards any recipient but solely towards the necessity for such conferments.

SADLY, in our own republican islands, the people as helpless taxpayers can only nervously laugh should they get hold of the knowledge that they're actually paying for the privileges of what to them may just be weird (esoteric, or exotic) "national" artists they don't know.
     Not that I think the people shouldn't be happy to pay up, being an artist of elite poetry and fiction myself (academicized poetry and fiction forms, mostly in the elite's language, English, or otherwise in another elite language, educated "Filipino"). For educating the majority with the elements and concerns of the arts categories included in the National Artist Awards may indeed result in a national elation over such knowledges and consequently such conferments. No. My beef is that, as a populist, I can't imagine myself forcing my unlettered neighbors, while they remain "unlettered" in these arts, to favor the high standards of certain art over the so-called lowness of their own barangays' unrecognized "folk art."
     The reason why I react to proclamations of certain figures as national-this and national-that, whether privately- or state-funded, is because I don't quite appreciate the virtue of an elite group's (or that of a figure of fake populism) lording it over the so-called masses in issues relating to national "culture," much less issues that demand a redefinition of the word "nation."
     One of Cuenco's most popular songs is "Pilipinas." I honestly hope they know how to sing this in Cebu, or even in the marketplace in Baliuag, Bulacan.

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