Friday, August 28, 2009

Two fruits, one tree (or, why there is no such thing as a national artist)

photo from

Through our friendly exchange of comments on Sylvia Mayugas Facebook wall regarding the ongoing National Artist of the Philippines title award debacle, Lila Shahani, a doctoral candidate at Oxford University (London) working on her postcolonial literature in English degree and who used to work for the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the Gawad CCP committee, observed a “somewhat promiscuous and occasionally rather putrid need to constantly canonize in the Philippines.” She went on to propose a national art completed through a process “more natural, more organic, where the cultural minutiae comes alive on its own.” Still, the hanging question was, Why this eternal craze for “canonization” and official recognition by a nation?
     Well, apart from the lack of an audience for many artists which might require forcing such an audience by legal declaration, my other quick explanation to that hanging query is this: we are not a nation. We have never been, and we just might never be. You see, a long time ago a colonizer declared the people of this archipelago “of ours” as one nation of “Filipinos”; then that colonizer left and we were likewise left with the vague duty of continuing the realization of that declaration. However, there are many factors keeping us from realizing that mission—regional, regionalist and religious divisions are just some of these. But I would like to focus on two very important factors, two basic ones responsible for the constant and unflagging division in our nation and which I believe are at the root of such cultural issues as this surrounding the recent National Artist of the Philippines title debacle—viz., language and education. (Let’s lay aside for the moment the issue of politics governing National Artist selection, as I am more concerned in this essay with the masses’ unconcern).
     Okay. Now, some will say we are divided into two nations, the rich Filipinos’ nation and the poor Filipinos’ nation. That is also true. But that view can be tricky in the art of explaining the economics behind it, so I’d rather trace things to the more obvious dividing tool: language. (As I write this, for instance, I’m fully aware of my readership, and that readership does not include my neighbors in our barangay).
     In the Spanish era we were introduced to feudalism, and within that feudal system was entrenched a wedge that would forever keep the poor from reaching the landlord’s sons’ and daughters’ level. That tool was language. Spanish became the mode of instruction in the academies, and—since society operated under a feudal system—the academies would mostly be affordable only to the landed gentry or the merchant class, seldom to working class elements or the peasantry who could only rely on the charity of private or public scholarships. The learned from Spanish, therefore, could thus only become more learned by Spanish. Those denied access to the language from childhood might be able to keep up a bit, but only up to a point (the same way that what we now regard as OFW English can only function for certain functions but not in the alta sociedad ballroom functions, unless you are Manny Pacquiao’s mom).
     Now, when the Americans came and went, that systemic bent of wedging a divide between the poor (Tagalog-speakers) and the rich (now English-speakers) was not removed. Sure, there were efforts to come up with a language we could call our own, which my great grand-uncle Jaime de Veyra was party to. Declared as the national language, Tagalog (which would later be academicized to be known as Filipino) had a nationalist rationale-cum-agenda; but it did not seem to be aware of its potential in ultimately removing the poor-rich wedge tool, the language divide. The nationalists spoke Tagalog in public functions, but kept their snobbery by English’s way with the rest of the upper class in their daily exclusivist conversations concerning keeping up with the white Joneses. The national language mission was designed for nation-making, never for nation-uniting. And the problem with that was, the nation got to be made by the new landed gentry and the new merchant class who were being educated by Thomasite standards.
     Since language and education are like the left and right arms of every citizen that makes coping with daily life a whole lot easier, that wedge in Philippine society separating the left arm and the right arm to make life more difficult necessarily manifested itself in all facets of society’s operations, including that activity called the arts. And so the poor Filipino nation generally listened to radio soap operas and pop music and watched cinema entertainment in Tagalog, while the rich Filipino nation primarily listened to radio news and music in both Tagalog and English and watched English soap operas on TV and English movie-theater movies. Sure, rich entrepreneurs made Tagalog literary masterpieces for the masses, but that doesn’t mean they preferred these to their self-Americanization or self-Europeanization ideals.
     It was logical therefore to see a two-pronged development of the arts. The Tagalogeros’ arts included, among others, still life and Last Supper paintings on plywood or katsa (low-grade cotton canvas) made by maglalako painters (painter-vendors) who intended these for dining room display. Their art, similarly colonial as their upper-class masters’, also included American jet fighter jeepney sticker art, and such other manifestations of colonial idolatry. The Ingleseros’ arts, meanwhile, included—among others—painting inspired by the painting concerns of the moment in New York/Berlin/London/etc., emulations of Italian industrial design, and so on. The former became prisoners in their own country and were only able to do so much artistically, while the latter generally became prisoners of their old and continuing colonialist ideals—but that is a different issue.
     Thus, today, by virtue of that language divide that entrenched an educational divide that in turn created artistic divides, we continue to face the problem of addressing the concepts of what a national art is, who a national artist is, when a national art or artist is, and how national is a national artist.
     Politicians would find it easy to give out answers since their usual concern with the arts is political. Artists seem to have a more difficult time with it, since they would be more genuinely concerned with defining what is art and what is national.

Now, I forget who it was who wrote in the 80s, in the American magazine The Saturday Review, something like this: “every time I see an I Love New York sticker, I know New York is in decline.” Something like that. Well, every time I see a symbol of canonization, like a National Artist award for someone, I know its ultimately a symbol of desperation.
     Desperation, I say, because we (consciously or subconsciously) know we have not yet realized the old proposal to be a nation and have thus remained constantly divided—not just regionally but regionalistically, religiously, linguistically, economically. The compounded result of which is finding ourselves eternally crazy about such exercises of false nationhood as following a rigid performance of the national anthem (as against the US allowing much leeway in the performance of its own). We have acquired thus a hunger for perfect symbols: a national hero, a national flower, a national fruit, a national fist, a national pasalubong, a national book store, whatever national else. Subconsciously, we know that we really dont represent anything collectively. Culturally, Sudan’s infighters seem better off, for they know they are fighting for specific ethnic rights and also ownership of specific oil territories. We, on the other hand, celebrate our symbols the way we celebrate our religious days and icons—blindly most of the time, wishfully at best. Rizal the fighter for autonomy or independence is loved on Rizal Day even as we continue to embrace the dictates of the economists of foreign creditors, which is the same behavior we display every time we congratulate ourselves for a nice mass (on a Sunday or Saturday), even as weve come to love the things Jesus of Nazareth used to hate.
     Blindly, therefore, unfazed do we march forwardalbeit in a haze—toward what could bring us true nationhood. Nationalizing anything and everything has become our desperate and self-assuring habit. I find it easy to say that by simply trying to be a nation and trying blindly, we will never attain our objective. For nationhood, you see, cannot be constructed by imposing wishful thinking on a people within a territory via momentary spurts of sloganeering and songs of “magkaisa tayong mga Pilipino” every time there’s a news-friendly event requiring commonality, or every time we come up with a utopia of obedience under the rubric of a “Strong Republic.” Nationhood takes a lot more effort than that. Some even had to build a nation through a war cause. Or a peace cause. There was always a uniform direction within the internal divide.
     But that’s on the one hand. On the other hand, there is the Karl Popperian idea of a democratic society that proposes to create a nation by constant democratic exchanges, internal economic exchanges, and pluralism. What these exchanges demand is the achievement not of uniformity for the sake of nation-building but plurality and variety for the sake of “free society”-building. This demands an atmosphere akin to a town fair with competing booths, the thesis being that unifying by way of unifying breaks a nation, while enhancing differences under the parameters of opinionated aggression as well as the “acceptance of one’s obsolescence” (Popper) creates the necessary physical human unity consisting precisely of more exchanges and the consequent nurturing of a continuing mutual respect. We do not have that in our idea of democracy. Our idea of democracy remains: to have the freedom to speak and not to own the responsibility to listen—but this, too, is another issue.
      Suffice to say that our nation is not made up of a demos of a people, which should be one and the same thing; instead we have educated lords lording it over the demos, creating two peoples. Thus we continue to nationalize anything and everything to embark on this subconscious mission to hide the truth; it has become our reflex action and attitude towards every frustrating event that occurs in our midst. Instead of decentralizing culture to create that town fair atmosphere, we announce on the speakers that everyone in the town fair should wear blue and red shirts and jeans. We do not just crave for a nation, we try to design a nation, and we take it upon ourselves to act on that duty. The problem is, even with an obedient people we cannot acknowledge the fact that we cannot even give them orders if they are speaking a different language.
     The process of elitist nation-making can be quite funny, too—it shows us how nation-shapers can become parodies of themselves. And that is not just in our archipelago where things are not even funny anymore. The American Grammy Awards, for instance, has a system wherein peers can nominate only those artists who have reached a certain number of sales in the market; this is similar to the Hall of Fame awards system wherein mayors and governors and sports investors take the ritual photo op on the day of conferment, not realizing they actually waited decades before they could say, “oh okay, he's still not forgotten, maybe we can give him the award now.” Who the hell needs that conferment in the first place when the people already gave it to the man/woman centuries ago? What the hell is a Grammy nod all about if what is required is a market nod first? Now, of course there are honors that really honor, and these are usually the awards that do not pretend to derive from somewhere else. But the rest are crap, and these are usually the awards that pretend to have been conferred by an Academy when in fact it had indirectly been conferred by the people firstly, or these are the ones that pretend to have been conferred by the nation, or by the city, or by the barangay, when in fact an institution took it upon itself to speak for the nation/city/barangay. The National Artist title award is that latter type of carabao dung. And the sad part of it is it not only pretends to be an award by the nation for an “artist of the nation,” sans a definition of who a nation is composed of, it even wastes the peoples tax money—the only thing truly of the people and by the people in that award. And from now on, the filmmakers of our land will pay their cultural taxes to pay for C-movie filmmaker Carlo Caparas’ monthly stipend, the new controversial awardee.
     Consider, however, that Carlo Caparas—a product of profit-based movie marketing for the masses created by rich movie producers—is not an “academic” artist, and perhaps also why a lot of arts people were astounded by the conferment. Now, Caparas may be a bad artist, but that says something else again: the world of academic artists and the world of an educated politician like Gloria Arroyo cannot seem to meet on the same plain. Why is this? Perhaps Gloria Arroyo does not really believe Caparas to be worthy of the award; she has been so wily a politician, as many of us have been wont to say. If so, then it would make perfect sense that Gloria Arroyo chose to confer the award on somebody who in her opinion might be her people’s champ able to go against the elite artists’ preferred refined champ.

“What is this constant need to deify, whether its the Gawad CCP or National Artist award?” asked Lila Shahani.
     Apart from the Gawad CCP and National Artist awards, which are national efforts, let me digress to the Palanca Awards, which is a private effort. Some would aver that it would be unfair of me to touch this last as it is not of the same bunch—but they are of the same bunch. First, though, the disclaimer. Palanca’s sin is not a grave one, for it only pretends to be an “award” even as it is really a contest prize for contest applicants with three judges sitting for each category instead of a committee like, say, the Swedish Academy for the conferment of one award. It only pretends to be like the National Critics Circle awards (an honor honest about its being a circle’s honoring someone) even as it is actually the American Idol of Philippine literature. And Philippine writers play along—for the money, or for the credentials (since the literati have already attached themselves to it as an institution). A writer-friend says some of these Palanca-participating writers would even adjust their writing styles for whoever is going to sit as a major judge in a year’s contest (it’s a small community, you can’t keep a secret), but that’s another matter and I cannot name names.
     But at least the Palanca doesn’t pretend very much to be of and for a nation. It acknowledges that it is of and for writers and is only an opportunity medium for . . . actually I think for the propagation of the easy transfer of styles of patronage.
     I do not, however, think the Palanca to be entirely useless. I would only rather that it was a publishing and distribution grant so readers can access/check its winners. In short, so it can be a part of a potential literary market and potentially of the nation.
     Let me discourse further on Palancas role in my arguments here later. First, Lila Shahani points out that international publishers like Random House seem more interested in ethnic voices than in national voices, in an Australian aborigine writer than in an Australian writer, at least presently. And that is really because book publishers are moved by the forces of market tastes and market availability and marketability and market niches. They are moved by such principles as positioning, product image, product identity. They know what they are looking for.
     If you want to make it in the Philippine market, Ms. Shahani opines from experience to provide a contrast, it is useful to celebrate some aspect of our national identity. So would a Filipino version of Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger make it back home [Shahani is writing from India], with all its criticisms of India? Unlikely. Instead, even if one is not necessarily formally gifted, as long as one celebrates the pastoral, the indigenous or the national, one is bound to be awarded eventually. Isn’t this as dubious as the criteria for multicultural writing internationally? In my two earlier blog essays here under the National Artist label, this was what I referred to as a propensity to institutionalize—through the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the CCP—safe art.
     And this is precisely how Filipino movements for idealizations operate, however various the approaches are by the different NCCA directors or CCP chairmen. And if we are to go back to the Palanca, which is governed more by the standards of its sitting judges from a previous or newly-established generation of writers than by any government interest, it sadly still turns out to be another form of convention propagation, or conventional innovation, and all because judges would not be inclined to interest a market, or a people, or a readership. Its judges would be mostly concerned with their aesthetic idealizations for an imagined market, an imagined people, and the small readership who may or may not love those idealizations since the judges and writers would have no way of knowing since Philippine literature is often for free. Almost nobody in my barangay has probably even read a poem or story by a Palanca winner. And if you say not all barangays are like my barangay, I would bet you my whole year’s salary if you can give me a barangay with even at least 20% of its population having read a book by a Filipino creative writer apart from the required Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo in college. I know this is not Czechoslovakia, and I know that neither is this Russia with taxi drivers reading Russian novels in Russian by Russian writers.
     So, what am I saying? Am I preaching nation-making by proposing a mono-lingual utopia?

In the early post-Marcos decades, there have been efforts to democratize the elite arts. The CCP even toured ballet performances to the provinces in the late 80s through its outreach program. It was the institution’s way of hoping that if you bring a thing to the people, the people would eat that thing. If you give them caviar, they’d go “ooh.” Well, that seemed to be the prayer, at least. The CCP’s nationalizers were understandably offended when they didn’t get those bravos, or got offended more when they got a “mas masarap pa ang bagoong dyan e” sort of response to their West-inspired art.
     But, get this. This approach was not exclusive to the elitist in the arts who thought like Imelda Marcos in saying, the way to erase an elite is to make an elite element out of everyone. No, even the Marxists in the academic world did come up with their own designs for nation-making. They said people should have access to our books, and so our writers should start writing in the people’s language, Filipino. The problem was, and still is, this: language doesn’t seem to operate merely through words, it also takes its personality from the education it got (and the jobs and wages that this education got it), and from the access to a bookstore that went along with its being able to find that meager job thanks to the meager education it got. Sure you can tell a people and their language, “hey, pare, mare, hindi ito sonnet, ito ay isang soneto,” but that, ladies and gentleman, would not change the politics around the art commodity—coining a new local word for an alien object would not readily assimilate that object into the accepted culture of the larger society nor guarantee its acceptance after having been understood. In short, you may change the politics within an art, the language and its contents, but that would not change the elitist aura of all Philippine art that do not derive from the barangays or the people themselves and their education (the education afforded them by a poorly-accorded privilege).
     Ms. Shahani also shared this observation: the ones we seem to idealize (in this context I have more experience with Gawad CCP) are the ones with fairly obvious and identifiable nationalist references.” That would be emulating or aping the Pulitzer, but at least the Pulitzer is clear on that in all its press releases, and the Pulitzer had had material that involved American characters in foreign lands (Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King almost won). Still and all, nationalism as a rationale for a Gawad is still merely tinkering with the content of the message, not fixing the real root of the absence of a nation-audience. “Unless you’re in awe of the greats, you’re in trouble, it seems,” Lila adds, and to me that’s a signal frustration with our collective fear for the “nationalist greats,” nationalist greats who are however unperturbed by the threat of the nationally uneducated (or unperturbed at least by our money-wasting in all this arts funding).
     So, in the end, what am I preaching? Well, if I am to preach here at all, I shall do it by referencing my admiration for what the novelist and short story writer Jose Dalisay wrote somewhere, sometime ago, to the effect of confessing that he is a bourgeois writer writing in a bourgeois way on non-bourgeois themes for a bourgeois audience. He didn’t put it that way, really; I did. But that’s basically what he was saying and basically what he has been doing. Now, if only the national arts committees of this god-forsaken nation could muster the same boldness to acknowledge its standing in the nation and stop pretending to be of the nation, then maybe we can begin the job of really making this nation one.
     Until that time comes, I will continue to refuse to call any Filipino artist—including myself—a national artist or an artist of the nation. There can be no such animal in this jungle. [END]


After reading the above blog essay, Sylvia Mayuga emailed me an article that shall be a part of her new anthology to be published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press. The article is actually a review of the book A Country of Our Own by California-based Cebuano writer David Martinez, a poet who---it turns out---seems to carry the same belief as mine concerning the mythology of our nationhood, though he develops his piece in a more researched though perhaps less sanguine way to produce his "tour de force" on the issue (Ms. Mayuga's phrase). Mabuhay sab ka, bay.
     But it gets better. Sylvia wrote "New Morning for Inang Bayan," extolling the positive coming off a negative event, including this blog---along with an interview with Ms. Shahani---in the limelight of her prose as she rose to her finale. That was quite embarrassing and an honor.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The aesthetics of the economics of vanity

butt vanity photo borrowed

It is not as exclusive as many think it is. And I'm referring to what many assail as the vanity of tummy tucks, butt implants, liposuction, and what-not. For steep as the price of any of these operations may be, vanity is universal, and its many aesthetic variants would betray just as many pricing levels in the market. In fact, vanity is the market.
     I write this as my way of recording my recent debate with my neighbor's aunt at her diner in front of our barangay market when I went there this morning to buy a rare cup of barako coffee and enviable thick Visayan latik on suman for breakfast. My mother-in-law wakes up so early in the morning and I wake up so late and my wife leaves for the office for the usual rush hour along with the kids, so I'm left with the delightful experience of having special suman with latik syrup for breakfast. But this morning, a debate with my neighbor's aunt ensued when she started to scream all over the place over the issue of a lady on her TV screen, a lady who was saying Vicki Belo's clinic botched her buttock augmentation which endangered her life at a later stage when the silicone started to decay and harbor all sorts of microbial pirates inside her ass of a colony, or something to that effect. But, oh no, my neighbor's aunt was not concerned with the legalese favoring the butt-reshape customer and "victim," nor was she fuming at those who "do not follow the doctor's post-operation instructions," as some of my other neighbors in the diner cockily put it. My neighbor's aunt was merely feeling victorious, or---all right---simply glad, that an apostle of vanity had been punished by the anti-aesthetics god(s) of modesty that she says she devoutly worships.
     Reader, note that it is not my wont to argue with my neighbor's aunt, modest and behaved boy that I am. However, I have to confess I could not contain myself in my coffee cup meditation this morning and went outside my private circle in an outburst of fecund wordplay in defense of vanity itself. Not because I felt I was one of those whose vain pain she might later mock, I was still in my cheap flip-flops and am pretty past my high school days of wearing a look-at-me KISS-band makeup, but because I felt my economic philosophy was being trampled on, my belief and aesthetic religion insulted to the edge of the moon.
     How vanity is't in her, mesaid, when livest it yet in all---I said, in mock archaic English. "Ha? Ano yun?" she asked. "Unsa'y imong ingon, dodong? (What are you saying, kid?)" went she further, my neighbor's aunt from the modest island of Bohol.
     And, to my surprise, she listened. She listened, shocked perhaps that this good son-in-law of her neighbor mahjong mate who had up till now only listened and listened well to all her rantings against everything pro-labor, this boy who seemed to agree (if she only knew) with everything she said in defense of Gloria (Arroyo) not the U2 song, this son-in-law of her friend who would just say nothing but flash a series of smiles towards her articulateness, . . . shocking that he would now turn the tables and do the podium work in defense of his, his . . . "philosophy"---but she listened. "Philosophy gradweyt diay ka, dong? Unsa man, nganong wa kag mag-law? (You're a philosophy graduate, then, kid? Then why didn't you take up law?)"
     And though I forgot if I told her "no, I was never officially a philosophy student, I don't even finish the books I read," I remember that this was what I told her, to the amusement of my other neighbors in the diner (the butcher, the baker, and the candy stick vendor):

"'Nang (Mother)," I said, "all of us, all of us, without exception, plot our lives in the name of vanity. Perhaps not all in the nurture of their facial beauty, perhaps not all in the maintenance of youthful hubris, but all in the service of vanity, nonetheless.
     "You, for one," I said. "As much as I. We all, sinners that we all are as our parish pastor's wont to say, we all are children of vanity as we are of god [I believe she read god with a capital G]. Me, embarrassingly fortyish, I yet sport my long greying hair as if to spite the regal Romanness of Rome in favor of the long-haired Druids, old as I am who should be saluting the conventions of the short-haired and conventional now. And you, you in your modest 'duster' (sundress), you also take pride in such modesty and allow the arrogance of conventionality to dictate on those who sway from the barangay's ways, don't you, Aling Britney? And your name, your name itself is an identity which you subconsciously wear like a logo, don't you?"
     "Aba, aba, aba, ang galing mo palang magsalita a, dapat pala tumakbo ka sa susunod na barangay eleksyon, no. Sus, ninduta uy; hayaan mo, kakausapin ko si Kapitan, baka puwede kang . . ."
     I said I'd be back to my telework now, presently, and will just bring back her coffee mug later, and she said all right but I should consider really running for the barangay council.
     So, what was it I really wanted to say?---
     Well, I wanted to enumerate as many aesthetic variations of vanity. Sure, there are the usual vanities of art, of architecture, of cookery, of musical taste, of car and garage design, of lawns, of cycling jerseys, of religion, of politics, of engineering, of science, of a language and its poetry. . . . But there are also the more latent aesthetic vanities, aside from the vanity of modesty (simplicity's arrogant utopia against rococo tastes) and the vain righteousness of village mob wisdom. For one, there's the vanity of the view that our lives are what we make them. There's even the classic vanity of those who have long loved the status of wearing the stamp of poverty on their shoulders, with nary an absence of pride, wearing poverty like a unionist's tag on one's branded social-realist shirt. And being one of those who have concluded that, in this country, where there's smoke there's fire's one of the stupidest things you'd ever hear, I sat content with the Thoreau-bred thought that where there's a society there shall always be vanity.

And so, what now? How do we escape it, then? If we cannot escape it, must we then just embrace it, make a religion out of it, in Moses' absence?
     I thought about this question and, vainly, came up with this conclusion:
     Our problem with vanity now should not be so much with the difficulty (nay, the impossibility) of escaping it. Our problem with vanity has always been that we have constantly been told to escape it. The problem is we have been told it is bad to be vain. And yet those very same people who say so have the vanity to dictate on us what is vain and what is not. To get a liposuction is vain. But him getting a gas-guzzler of a gigantic truck for to pick his daughter from school is not, because anyway he just drives in his Jockey-branded undershirt.
     It's about time we chuck all this bullshit about what's vain and what's not. In the end, it all boils down to the same old Marxist issue of powers who label and non-powers who get labeled (and by powers I do not mean just the rich, for the stupid mob is just as much a force to reckon with as any landlord's army of goons). But lest I be mistaken again for a Communist (predisposed as everyone is in this country to do so) by my adherence to Marxist critical views, allow me once again the vanity of aggression in saying this: the examination of who said something and to whom it was said benefits not just a party, not any one party, including a Communist party, but an entire market of sellers and buyers!
     Telling our people that it is okay to be vain will do nothing less than get us moving forward. Telling our people that they should not apologize for their way of life will move nothing less than money that should be moved to stimulate an economy. It'll move our rotting butts off to the marketplace to make us buy lunch break lipo, a gourmet doughnut over a vainly simple glazed one, a sports car perhaps or a medium-sized Anton del Castillo more expensive than a Pajero, or a new fancy church in a new fancy spot. What is wrong with that, as long as it's your money? Here's my big what-is-wrong-with-that? If to do one of those is to do wrong, then everything in life is wrong. If doing one of those is bad, then everything in life is bad.
     (Sure, there's the argument that too much consumption is bad for the environment, but even that presupposes the vanity of humankind [anthropocentrism] thinking itself superior to dinosaurs and must therefore not go.)
     I finished my coffee. Having sat in front of my computer monitor for so long and said to myself all that I needed to say to deflate my chest, I vainly walked over to my neighbor's aunt and asked her, in quirky Cebuano, "Manang, you take pride in your coffee, right" She nodded, puzzled. I said, with syllabic emphases, "you're so vain kaayo, uy, but I'm so proud of you." I handed her the empty cup.

The marketplace in front of the diner went on its busy and merry way, exchanging money and judgments and all sorts of harassment in that mini-divine comedy of a day. But divine---however you put it---in celebration of selves' lives, all in the name of pure vanity.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Honesty in the Lie of Entertainment

photo of Revillame from

SO MANY people are once again lambasting entertainment TV host Willie Revillame for carrying on with his fun-for-the-masses crappy noontime show Wowowee, not because they now finally agree with the band Itchyworms’ series of songs satirizing such profitable variety show shit; no, they are finally coming out to curse all of Revillame’s expensive houses because, horrors, he, Revillame, carried on with his noontime fun while Corazon Aquino’s funeral cortège (updates from which were intermittently being broadcast on TV) was on its way to an eternal memorialization in the planet’s history books as one of the most visited and watched cortège curious inhabitants of this planet ever saw. Revillame has already apologized, and the Aquino family has accepted the apology, him and TV host Kris Aquino being channel-mates and all, but—alas!—Revillame’s critics won’t have any of it. They want Revillame’s head on a plate, they want ABS-CBN to remove his name from its payroll, they want the authorities to run after his expensive cars and homes, minimize his mini-mall, they want to see him impoverished and finally slighted by his alleged “Guest Relations Officers” (“girlfriends regularly overlapping,” one envious/righteous wit of a gossip, whose name escapes me presently, once said).
     All the above mass anger is understandable anger if we’ve loved Corazon Aquino or the cause she had represented and represented us in. But, you see, this is also understandable behavior among those who merely want to exploit the anger and use Revillame’s (deservedly) maligned image as a scapegoat for their own guilt.
     I dare defend Willie Revillame the entertainer, though I have nothing but deep hatred for TV shows that kowtow to the poor’s beggary principles, feeding on their feudal patronage of TV hosts as well as mayors and presidents who throw away crumbs as the version of socialization self-righteously deemed better than real socialization itself. Hate those shows, I do, those TV shows and those political ones, for their alibi that it’s better to throw crumbs to a few lucky ones while the government or management behind them awaits the coming of a comprehensive miraculous change in their souls. Somehow I liken it all to a charity foundation built for the possibility of hefty tax rebates, or to carrying runny-nosed homeless babies for political photo ops to upgrade an image. The end for all those is always huge but latent profits. . . . But now, for fear of being labeled a communist (as is our wont), I’ll say I hate it/those not because I hate profit itself but because I smell dishonesty in the concept, see a faked desire to help a beggar with a 1,000 pesos while seeing a reluctance in its ability to donate to a cancer ward with a 1,000,000 of the same currency.
     But this is not where I would like to waste my blog space and my readers’ time on. It is somewhere else I would want to pooh-pooh convention. I would rather piss my reader off with my defense of Mr. Revillame than incense or bore him/her with my corny dialectics on the virtues of true Christianity or real (moderate) socialism.

I DARE defend Mr. Revillame for the simple reason that on that very day the nation saw him as verily crass and unprincipled, I saw nothing but honesty and integrity. While hundreds of Aquino-the-oppositionist haters displayed tears on TV as if to exploit the cameras for the nursing of their profiles as human souls, I saw Revillame as the one—the only one—devoid of hypocrisy.
     I do not mean to infer that in truth and in fact Revillame has not a gram of sympathy for Corazon Aquino as a person and as a cause, or has none of that for her family, or—worse, as others would have it—no sympathy for any dead person, oh no. I only mean that Revillame struck me that day as the very personality that he has always been, one who has no qualms about being a selfish child forever while also one who finds it not so hard to apologize like a self-conserving child an hour or day or week later, one—in fact—who would repeatedly preach about the virtue of childishness himself (correct me if my memory serves me wrong). Revillame did not change himself for the occasion, and the reason is simple: he does not know how to. Or, to be even more generous to the man, he probably by nature prefers not to.
     Many say Revillame is evil. I would beg you to pardon my disagreement, for I’d say you likely fail to see that his goodness lies in his honesty, inclusive though that may be of his honesty about his dishonesties. He constantly confesses his crassness, his business motives, his women, and so on and so forth, even his recurring evil. It’s a virtue so rare among us who delight in our own latent daily crassness and unfair price hikes who would later face the mirror to convince our own shaved masks that “you’re good.”
     Contrast Revillame now, then, with those who sent flowers to Aquino’s vigil, wore black or white (or beige) or yellow to chat with those at the vigil, and made offered sound bites for TV or radio microphones extolling Aquino’s virtue, doing thus while deep down were thanking the god Mammon for extracting yet another leader of street rallies, or—days or hours or minutes later—would go back to the very acts and thoughts against which Aquino could only want to live more to fight, armed with words of defiance and dedication her enemies had hitherto been giggling at.

I SEE not much of a political person in Willie Revillame. When he talked to the TV host Cito Beltran on the latter’s now-defunct talk show on ABS-CBN News Channel when the former had his falling out with ABS-CBN bosses before Wowowee was realized, he (Revillame) did not hide his selfish profit motives, almost bragging about how much of a business genius and conceptualizer he was and is. On that show, I saw Revillame as a guest on Bloomberg Television serious about making money, not someone pretending to be a “man of the masses” on Fox News. The man is a hungry businessman, no lying about that. If he is a deceptive persona, I’d say he is no more a liar than the bulk of advertising produced for TV.
     Revillame is a child. A grandchild at his grandpa’s wake might be missing his grandpa, but he would still be harassing his sister playing jacks in front of the funerary band playing grandpa’s favorite Glenn Miller marches, still be carousing with his kid gang-mates even as his grandpa’s cadaver parches. But that child, that child is not ever going to be a falsity. Nor a fakery. Nor a visiting figure of hypocrisy. A child cannot falsify his child-ness, cannot fake his childishness, can’t pretend to be a child. Often a child pretends to be an old man, and what we do is laugh at him and he laughs back in response to our giggling. Stupid, yes, but the child knows. He knows he is not an old man. He knows, too, that he’s bad at faking. Often he finds out he’s not good at lying.
     In contrast, again, the hypocrite and the fake will—during a night at a wake or during the duration of a funeral parade—believe, while the wake or parade or funeral ceremony lasts, that he/she has loved the dead. And he/she wouldn’t want to believe—or wouldn’t want people to believe—that he/she hadn’t.

THE ANGER against Willie Revillame (while curiously forgiving ABS-CBN itself, as always) continues. This is understandable if we had loved Corazon Aquino or one of the causes she passionately represented us in. But, you see, this is also understandable behavior for those who merely want to exploit the anger and use Revillame’s image as a stand-in for their own momentary shame. [END]

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Politicians’ Artists of the Philippines vs. Artists’ Artists of the Philippines

Yesterday at the rally at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts office protesting the National Artist of the Philippines title awards given to C-movie filmmaker Carlo Caparas and theater organizer Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, National Artists and sundry joined Imee Marcos and Irene Marcos-Araneta in condemning the “presidential prerogative” exercised by the Malacañang Palace in picking this year’s awardees.
     Somehow I thought something was wrong here. F. Sionil Jose and Bienvenido Lumbera, among others, voiced concern over the sacrilege. The award was now tainted, they said. It was not honorable anymore. Their argument was simple: the Palace shouldn’t be deciding on things like these, that was the consensus, if only because the Palace was wrong in picking two artists the protesters thought didn’t even deserve to be called artists.
     Here’s what I thought. I thought this has already happened before and will happen again. What happened before was a not-too-loud controversy over then-President Joseph Estradas conferring the same title on the songwriter Ernani Cuenco for the year 2000. Artists wrote emails to each other to solicit protestations against this award for Cuenco, an Estrada friend.
     I remember writing a post on this subject at Flips, a mailing list for mainly Filipino-American writers. And what I wrote was basically the same opinion I carry now (see this mailing list post, which I uploaded as a blog post here in 2000, with the necessary adaptation and updates).

And so it happens again. And it will happen again. All because we can never agree on who should be declared a National Artist and why, in the same way that professors in a multicultural university in the United States find it hard to agree on which authors can be featured in their school’s curriculum. In our case, artists as a supra-collective will have their standards, politicians (ruling and not) their own. The worldly will have their opinions, the lumpen majority their searched words. The fine arts student will be very articulate, debating a take by a bus-driver fan of a popular art’s hyped-up stalwart.
     Kumukulo na ba ang dugo niyo? Sige, mag-Tagalog na tayo.
     Ang National Artist of the Philippines title award na tinayo ni Ferdinand Marcos noong 1972 ay isa lamang sa ilang manipestasyon ng pag-na-nationalize ng anumang gobyerno at ng mga authorized” na tao sa sining. Tulad ng NCCA at Cultural Center of the Philippines, ito ay nag-iimpluwensya sa sining mismo na gumawa ng safe art, ng sipsip (sucking-up) art, at di paggawa ng mga Orapronobis (Fight for Us) o anumang hindi magugustuhan ng nasa kapangyarihan. Ang rehimen ng ruling class na nag-iimpluwensiya sa ruling party ay mag-iimbita ng mga protest art kung ito ay laban lamang sa mga nakalipas na rehimen o di kaya'y pumoprotesta sa mga kalaban niya ngayon.

photo from

     Oo, mga paret mare, ang pagtalaga ng national art taliwas sa tunay na sining ng mga tao (na ayaw nating amining di natin nabibigyan ng sapat na edukasyon at tayo lamang sa mga maririwasang pamilya ang nakakaintindi sa mga National Artists na ito), at ang mismong pag-nationalize ng art, ay maihahalintulad natin sa pag-nationalize ng isang TV station. Paano kaya kung sabihin ni Gloria Arroyo na mula ngayon ay kakaibiganin na niya ang mga may-ari ng ABS-CBN at gagawaran niya ang ABS-CBN News Channel ng official tag na National Channel of the Philippines? . . .
     Bakit ba gustong-gusto nating magkaroon ng National Artists gayung meron naman tayo, o at least kaming mga karaniwang tao sa barangay? Meron tayong/kaming sariling national artists, di ba? Bakit ba gusto nating bumalik sa mga siglong ang artist ay nangangailangan ng patron na nasa kapangyarihan? Oo, kung tayo sa barangay ang hahayaang pumili ng taong ipagtatayo natin ng bantayog bilang simbolo ng ating sining, oo siguro at malamang si Caparas pa rin ang pipiliin natin. Ngunit kung yun man ang mangyari, tayo ang pumili. Walang magsasabing hindi iyon ang repleksyon ng ating kaalaman. . . .
     Unless mag-agree naman ang mga nagbabasa nito na mula ngayon ay mga artists na lang dapat ang boboto kung sino ang dapat maging National Artist. Wow. Kung iyon nga ang mangyari, ako naman ang tatayo at mag-ra-rally at magpapapadyak sa pagsabing: Alisin niyo ang salitang National. Palitan niyo ng Artists para maging Artists’ Artist of the Philippines. At mag-contribution na lang ang mga artists para sa perpetual stipend ng mga National Artists na ito at nang hindi na manggaling pa ang gastusin sa coffers ng republika, ng nasyon.
     Itoy hanggang matanggap natin ang katotohanan na, kung susuriin, ang karamihan sa mga itinuring nating National Artists ng ating bayan ay sa totooy Artists of the State (or of the Regime). At walang masama rito kung bibigyan ng angkop na titulong gayon. Dahil magkaiba po ang Estado at ang Nasyon, lalo na sa kulturang inukit ng representative democracy. At bagamat ang isang Estado sa ilalim ng isang representative democracy ay gawa at inatasan ng kanyang Nasyon na magpasya para sa lahat, malimit ding ang isang Nasyon sa loob ng isang Estadong ganito ay may kulturang di maintindihan ng kanyang elitistang Estado (na pinapatakbo ng mga elite) na paulit-ulit na ibinoto ng naloloko niyang walang-kamalay-malay na iba-ang-kulturang Nasyon. [END]

Friday, August 7, 2009

Kanino ba ang isang nasyon ng mga walang alam sa art? (Whose is a nation of fools about art?)

photo from

1. Hindi ke Imelda, hindi ke Mikey, na mga walang alam

HABANG sinusulat ko ito, in-progress na ang rally sa Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) o National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) kontra sa pagdeklara kina Carlo Caparas, na isang direktor ng mga tasteless na “massacre films” lang naman daw, at NCCA director Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, na nag-organize lang naman daw ng Philippine Educational Theater Association (na nagpatalsik din naman daw sa kanya) at ng mga safe art para sa sponsorship ng NCCA.

photo inserted 2013, borrowed from

     Tama. Dapat talaga ang nasyon ang pumipili ng nasyon-al artist nila, hindi si Imelda Marcos (na nagpatayo ng CCP) na hindi alam ang gusto ng tao, hindi rin ang aktor na si Mikey Arroyo na walang alam kundi ang gusto ng kanyang mga tao. Kaya nung sinulat ng kolumnistang si Conrado de Quiros na siya'y tila natawa noong ideklara ni Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ang national days of mourning para kay Cory Aquino---dahil hindi raw kailangan ng deklarasyon ng Malakanyang para magluksa ang bayan sa pagkamatay ng kanilang minahal---naisip kong ganun din dapat ang ating lohika pagdating sa mga paboritong artist ng ating nasyon (inanunsyo ang pagkapanalo ni Caparas at Alvarez isang araw lang bago namatay si Aquino): dapat walang dekla-deklarasyon. Ang artist na nasyonal ay nasyonal na artist, period.

One of Caparas' "massacre films" [photo from]

     Parang Grammy Award sa Amerika, nakakatawa. Although hindi aaminin ng NARAS, hindi ka qualified sa isang Grammy plum kung di ka umabot sa certain number of records sold, lalo kung di ka pop-market friendly. Kung ganun, ibig sabihin ihohonor ka ng peers mo kung hinonor ka na ng tao. Ba’t pa kailangang ihonor ka ng peers? Ngunit buti pa ang Grammy me primary sa tao bago umabot sa parlyamento ng mga taga-recording industry. Ang masaklap nga lang para sa mga ayaw ke Caparas, dito---kung saan ang magandang edukasyon sa arts ay binibigay sa mayayaman lamang---ay talagang si Caparas ang siyang magugustuhan ng tao kumpara sa mga Brillante Mendoza dyan sa sulok kung magbobotohan ang tao. Kung ganun, ibig ba sabihin ang Malakanyang ay nagpakamasa na rin sa pagpili ke Caparas?
     Kung ganun, sana sinagad na ng Palasyo. Sa theater, halimbawa, ang popular sa tao na si . . . Imelda. Di ba? Di hamak na mas magaling siyang artista kesa ke . . . she could easily shed a tear after an "I . . am . . . sorry," even though we never heard her say anything like that. In short, sa pag-arte siya'y kumbinsing; kumbaga, gustong-gusto ng madla at maaaring manalo uli sa Leyte kung gugustuhing tumakbo. National artist ka ng masa, madam! Isantabi mo na yang delicadesa at tanggapin mo, kahit ang asawa mo ang nagsimula ng lahat ng 'to! Ikaw rin for architecture, for giving us the leaning tower called the Manila Film Center that the nation never got to use!! (Sino pa ba ang mga mahilig magmanipula sa kung ano dapat ang hitsura ng sining at kultura natin, sino? Awardan natin!)

2. Ang artist ng mga walang alam sa aming barangay

YEHEY! Sabi ng iba, mamamatay na raw ang National Artist of the Philippines title awards! Salamat naman! Dagdag lang sa gastos ng taxpayer yang stipend sa mga artist na yan na hindi naman namin kilala dito sa aming barangay!
     Nasa kalsada ako kanina and made a sort of barangay survey and, guess what, Caparas won hands down as the artist of the people of our barangay's street over Brillante Mendoza, Lav Diaz, Jeffrey Jeturian (Kubrador), Raya Martin (IndependenciaManila), Raymond Red (Sakay), even over the veteran directors Maryo J. de los Reyes (Magnifico) and Carlos Siguion-Reyna (Ang Lalaki sa Buhay ni SelyaLigaya ang Itawag Mo Sa Akin). Caparas is an artist of the people, thus of the nation, no doubt about that, in the same way that Jinggoy Estrada would be the preferred statesman to this nation over somebody like the late Raul Roco. This nation may not be the nation the intelligentsia would rather see, but let's face it---this is the monster we helped create. By standing by and allowing our 20th-century governments to design an elitist education system so that we can enjoy our neighbors' stare of envy when the elite school's bus stops in front of our gates, we helped create that culture wherein Mikey Arroyo's movies would be the nation's preferred entry pick for the Cannes Film Festival. Compare this to the German public's regard for Werner Herzog or Japan's for Jūzō Itami and others. . . . But having said that, I'm signing up in the petition to withdraw Caparas’ award. How come?
     Perhaps because waiting for the perfect would make me an enemy of the good. And a lot of the artists marching presently are good artists. And Caparas movies are ba-a-a-a-a-a-d.

3. We’re paying for their stipend, di niyo ba alam?

BUT for the long term, I declare that this National Artist crap is really crap because a waste of tax money. It's either we hear a National Artist conferment on somebody the nation of academics loves but whom the lumpen nation has never even heard of, or on a maker of grindhouse films for double features back-to-back with '60s soft porn films for a dingy moviehouse under a Manila Light Rail Transit System structure for a nation of fools, or on an NCCA-based promoter of safe art.
     But then again, ladies and gentlemen, can't we agree that SAFE ART IS THE NATIONAL ART?? Mabuhay ang national safe-art artists we all deserve!!
     Then again, a National Artist cannot be declared, didn't we argue that already? Again, a national artist just is, period. Jaroslav Seifert became Czechoslovakia's national poet without anybody declaring him so. Pablo Neruda to Chileans and even Argentinians, same.
     Also, a multicultural nation cannot have a national artist, let alone a National Artist, but only niche artists. Why do we even have this illusion that we are a nation? Blog writers and their readers debating on Facebook is more of a nation now than the passengers on the Manila Metro Rail Transit System on a rush hour morning. National Artists, my ass. National Artists, my ass on a moviehouse toilet bowl full of phlegm and janitors' feces!

4. Kanino ba ang nasyon? Hindi niyo alam?

MY favorite artists need not be national artists. Why should Gloria Arroyo's favorite filmmaker and safe art organizer be our favorites, too? Is she a Queen Elizabeth conferring her blessings on her Shakespeare? Many would not even call her their president.