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.

No comments:

Post a Comment