Thursday, September 3, 2009

Five fruits of the National Art tree

from left to right: Cinemalaya Foundation founder Nestor O. Jardin, National Artist for Theater Design Salvador Bernal, CCP Chair Emily Abrera, National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose, National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, in a press conference regarding their questioning the decision of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to add four new National Artist awardees without consulting the selection committee. (Photo from

THE tug of war between those who want Gloria Arroyo to retract her insertion of the names of Carlo Caparas and Cecile Guidote-Alvarez into the year's National Artist of the Philippines status roster, on the one hand, and those who want to defend the President's prerogative through either legal terms or a rare aesthetic liberalism, on the other, continues. "I'm happy that it's in the court," Alvarez told the press. "There will be no more shouting in the streets. We can have a civilized discussion."
     Really? I predict that come the day of the awarding ceremony, a few will yet reel, others be shaking their heads, and some be in a self-congratulatory mood. I shall merely ask the question again: where does this really end?

1. Battles
I do not just mean this one about Caparas and Alvarez, but the whole shebang of battling it out for an aesthetic hegemony and political accommodation which has long been here, only not as loudly annoying in the past as now: there were the less raucous protestation by some quarters over composer Ernani Cuenco's recognition by Joseph Estrada's government, the questioning eyebrows over Fernando Poe Jr.'s conferment, the rumors spread about town regarding Virgilio Almario's, weird glances towards Ben Cabrera's, and a few more. Who is to say these guys don't deserve the elephantine Recognition? Who is to say they do? I declare that, like the first EDSA (or EdlSA) revolution that birthed a thousand EdlSA-like mini-rallies all over the country that always spring up every time a mayor is asked to vacate his seat, the Caparas and Guidote-Alvarez affair will henceforth birth an annual parade of protests from the Cultural Center of the Philippines to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts over the coming years' (decades') new National Artist recognitions. And why is that? Because everybody still agrees it's not the "system" that's rotten, at present it's only Gloria Arroyo and Carlo Caparas and Cecile Guidote-Alvarez who stink in the minds of their opposition; in fact, almost everyone agrees, with a constant nod toward each other, Catholic Church mass-fashion, that the National Artist award is holy.
     In her column of last Saturday, "New Morning for Inang Bayan," Sylvia Mayuga wrote: "Only 15 days had passed since this fighting spirit went to court for arbitration of this controversy weighted to the side of the Muse."
     I'm wondering, though, if the Muse is aware that the defendant in court is her own son (Caparas), daughter (Alvarez), and spouse (Arroyo). When the Muse allowed herself to marry and remarry and remarry, again and again, always at the disposal of any government for a husband (even while Eastern Europe's artists were celebrating their divorce from the clutches of their respective governments' domestic violence), this Philippine Muse virtually allowed herself to be tied to a monster system she would forever have to contend with. It's not going to stop at Caparas and Alvarez, as it did not at Ernani Cuenco or Fernando Poe Jr., as it did not when whispers crawled the gutters over Virgilio Almario's "canonization." Again, who is to say they don't or do deserve the honor? There will always be this battle, because the Muse told her children to scramble for their father's (the government's) blessing. And I'm not just talking about the government at Malaca├▒ang, but the government of cultural institutions whereby the process of nationalizing art has forever been celebrated in this country as every artistic child's ideal reference. But I wouldn't blame the children. Nor would I blame the approached or welcomed spouse. I'd blame the Muse. The Muse in us all.
     Or Muses, if you will. From the Philippines on to Europe and on until we reach the US's National Endowment for the Arts, the same combats over judgments, marginalization, mis-appreciations, the deserving and the undeserving, unworthy authority, and so on, within this system of state art patronage, rankle on like an irritating global itch no one wants to finally cure.

2. Dependence
The Muses. It's all over the country. Everywhere you go in the archipelago, in every province, the classic complaint goes like this: our government here is not supportive of the arts. We heard the same complaint hurled against then Cory Aquino's press secretary Teddy Boy Locsin when he expressed the taboo declaration: "culture is not a priority." We hurled the same pail of tears at President Fidel Ramos, whose government echoed Locsin's plea.
     I say we, and why not?almost every one of us in the arts is guilty of having benefited at one time or another from this system. I say we, because it is not seldom that we are all led by our artistic hunger to approach anyone and anything dangling the possibility of sponsorship that would boost our careers. And whether you've failed a thousand times to get that grant or won a thousand times at getting that funding, the fact remains that we are all affected. Grant winners and funding application losers both marched to the NCCA to protest the new "scandalous affair" or expressed disgust on their respective Facebook Walls. Isn't it about time, though, we examine whether this cycle of dependence is really what we want, this mode of measuring art and achievements or this route of guaranteeing production really what we prefer?
     I'm surely going to be despised by a lot of my peers for sticking to my belief that the state should have no business interfering in the arts. The arts are exchanges among artists and audiences. When government favors certain voices, that is to say, favors them with grants using public money, that's tantamount to asking another voice (say, an unfavored one) to contribute via taxation to the fund for the government-favored voices who are actually his government-favored competitors. I say, why not allow the arts to be handled by the individual and by the private sector and free the state from the headache of choosing artists to favor? Why not leave the state alone, so it can focus on the running of museums and education and social services? If government is to put a stake in the arts, should it not only be for education purposes? Doesn't it look legitimate when universities handle the arts instead of Commission bureaucrats, if only because in the universities it’s often for education purposes?
     When government interferes in education it does so in cognizance of its duty to equality. When it interferes in the people's various arts, it does so out of an ignorance of its people's variety. As to who among my friends enjoy having to pay a cultural tax every time he/she buys a movie ticket, with the awareness that this collection might be used to fund the art or literature of his/her peers whose art make him/her puke, I do not know. What I know is I might not mind contributing materials to some, and only some, of the artists being presently funded by the government, but that the government would dictate me to do so (through the tax system) does not make me feel happy about my contribution. Why does my contribution have to be regulated? I will go visit my friend artists and lend them loans anytime I want, not because government tells me to. It's quite ironic. While Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe fought to liberate its artists from the hold of the state, here we are as a nation with even communist-hating elements of the educated or financial elite asking government to put its hands deeper into the arts pot. The National Artist title controversy of 2009 is the monster everybody in the arts helped create. And this controversy will not be the last, until we face the fact that there will always be this battle for who gets the blessing of government and of art authorities with government appointments. I asked in one of my blogs in my blog series on the National Artist award, why are we so into the nationalization of the arts that Lino Brocka so hated?
     And why is it that it's the arts profession alone that's getting this favor? Why not, say, the baking profession? Imagine this to be the case among bakers, for example. The bakers would rally around a town plaza with placards saying "Give More Support to Baking!" "Support the Baking Culture!" And each one of the bakers approaches a journalist and testifies to this lack of the government's support for baking. Not support in terms of flour price regulation/subsidies, but in terms of flour-making grants or for the awarding of the National Baker of the Philippines title. Would Dunkin' Donuts and Country Style enjoy watching bakers from Mister Donut go home with the favor, knowing that they (DD and CS) contributed modest or hefty sums into that baking subsidy fund? Why can't the bakeshops and the bakers just compete without a public option? This is not healthcare, for god's sake, it's baking! And what is true for baking or skateboard manufacturing or the party event business should be true for painting, for filmmaking, or for making those cute little poems too!

3. Stultification
I had a discussion again on this issue with Lila Shahani, an Oxford University doctoral candidate working on postcolonial writing in English, who recently became one of my Facebook friends and a main character in my blog of last week titled "Two fruits, one tree (or, why there is no such thing as a national artist)"also a part of my series of blogs about the National Artist title award. Ms. Shahani agrees I should present my following query to each and every artist in this artistic nation: "I think the larger questionshould government be funding the arts and, if so, in what manner?begs serious attention." But then, she also lays down on the table her own take and queries: "You apparently think that government shouldn't interfere, period. I feel that it should be involved in terms of funding indigenous or larger ethnic and regional communities so they can produce the art more easily (venues, workshops, materials, etc). Should there be academic/cultural canon-makers, however? I'd have to think about that some more. Where it might appear, at first blush, that this encourages creativity, it might in fact be the case that too much of it can actually stultify the very creativity it hopes to engender."
     Too much of it, not enough of it, stultify it will. The nationalization of art produces acceptable art, safe art, pretty art, nationalistic art, protest art that doth not protest too much towards the government that maketh it eatcertainly not art that questions the standards and clich├ęs of those in "authority," certainly not art that explores virgin forests of beauty that have long been regarded as ugly by those who have to approve your funding, certainly not art that defies the codes of prettiness, not art that defies convention or conventional "fashionable rebellion," not art that questions long-established definitions of nationhood and good citizenry. And the reason for that is simple: guided art is un-free art.
     So, am I saying that much of the art sponsored by government funds have been mediocre? No. Some of them may even be revolutionary. But that would be because their revolutions got approval; in short, approved revolutions. What about those who didn't get their revolutions approved? What happens to their revolutions? How many have been sponsored that turned out to be mediocre, how many turned out to be great? How many got hefty grants for forgettable performances? Critics in their various fields of specialty can answer those questions and tell us whether government funding has really wrought out champions. How many revolutionary (or simply innovative) art got disapproved? Why? And even assuming that critics of the future will all agree that the CCP under, say, former advertising-industry stalwart Emily Abrera was a grand phase in CCP's history, what is to stop the institution from degenerating into a less grand epoch under new management?

4. Death of the Individual
Creativity is anywhere and everywhere. Apart from artists supporting themselves, not all of whom are well-to-do, how many times do we witness support for artists given by private individuals and foundations? And, lacking that support, how many times have we heard the phrase "aesthetics of poverty" passed around in areas where a lack of funds for expensive oil paint exists and creativity is still running wild? Why should government dip its powerful hands in the free exchange as if it wants to put up a propaganda TV station to compete with the private networks, yet operated via those networks' large tax contributions?
     The nurture of achievements? Artistic achievement can neither be a property of the state nor the claim of the state. Many experiences in communist countries have shown us a thousand times the futility of achieving high artistic standards under the state's guidance defining what is the highest art, unless the art products in their pedestals are read in the context of irony. The National Endowment for the Arts in the US, with its more advanced guidelines for approval in terms of communal representation or democratic accommodation, is still constantly pestered by questions of too much interference by the boards (and I'm not just talking about the Robert Mapplethorpe affair). Artistic achievement is finally by the individual and for critics to debate on, and many an individual artistic genius proved to have better achieved their stature through the minimal interference of somebody else's guidance. To say that it is worthwhile for the government to spend twenty million pesos for twelve artists with the hope that the investment will catch one genius is baloney. Artists become lesser geniuses with their patron's interference and become visceral geniuses when they have a falling out with their patrons. Or, as in the case of Ludwig van Beethoven, when they don't care much for what their patrons demand and seek to surprise them instead with what these patrons didn't expect.

5. Brainwashed Art
Who will be mother to the arts if government opts out? This has been the classic blackmail verse flaunted by those who have come to believe that if government opts out of arts-funding, the arts will die. But even such frightened dependence can be inspired by a lot of branding they can see around them. Booker or Man Booker, Pulitzer, Nobel, Palanca, Ayala, among other namesthese are private efforts that can boast of better patronage than their counterparts in government. And if you don't agree with the various institutions' standards of the good and the beautiful, fine, it's their money, not yours. A government arts commission, in contrast, would tell you to go to hell if you can't agree with their standards but still ask you to pay your cultural taxes so they can continue to operate.
     Who will be mother to the arts if government opts out? Ask that to the artists from the provinces who do not have access to public funding, who never had access to such public funding. Ask that to the urban artists who scoff at the approval demands and inane requirements by the committees lording it over artists' theses as masters of the acceptable.
     "France is pretty heavily centralized this way and there hasn't been as much new blood as, say, England or the US," says Shahani. That is a critical opinion. But my friend brings out an example of long dependence that has not adapted well to the globalized valuation of respect for the market. As with the US National Endowment for the Arts, long been a topic for contention in the US, as with the Philippine cycle of cliques' battling it out for a hold on the CCP or the NCCA, as with France's proclivity for subsidies, artistsfor a long time now alienated from the popular artists of the middle to latter 20th-centuryhave come to distrust the market. Artists have called the market, or the popular audience, stupid. They have called the market uneducated. And so, as if to wound it with vengeance, indirectly want to tax it for their nurture and survival so they can ram their respective weirdness on the masses' uncomprehending throats.
     "But leaving artistic recognition to the invisible hand of the market," as Ms. Shahani points out, "might not necessarily be a bad thing (as long as production itself has been subsidized) since it will generate competition and creativity, which is exactly what we want and need. This might in fact be more effective in the long run than having artists wait forand conform togovernment dole-outs."

The Pith
This is all understandable, really. Many a book have been written about how art veered too far away from the popular audience. And although there are still, say, the Juzo Itamis and the Quentin Tarantinos in "art cinema" or "film festival cinema" who have found ways of addressing both the needs of professors and those of ordinary sarariman (salary men), all in one product, the bulk of the artist population still prefers to talk to their fellow artists. Or to the art societies' embedded critics. Or to the well-heeled patrons of the art.
     Which is just fine, really. I do that, too. My poetry and fiction in English are mostly not for the masses. Not yet, anyway, and maybe never will be. But we, artists, shouldn't tax the people so we can concoct forever our esoteric kind of stuff. Who will be mother to the arts if government opts out? Well, no one! And I mean no one should baby artists, and certainly not the state. An artist should work his butt off and fund himself. He should be able to see that when he begins to do that, he would not just have learned how to work, he would have learned how to think and compete. And what if our artists cannot start to do that? I'd say no number of Caparases and Alvarezes will ever wake us to the real problem: artists' scrambling for, and consequent embarrassing dependence on, blessings from the State.
     I ask, why should your art as one artist be subsidized by a hundred of your peers and a thousand of your uncomprehending neighbors? Isn't that by itself no less shameful than what we're presently protesting against as political patronage? [FIN]


Author's note: This author wishes to acknowledge Sylvia Mayuga for the guest display of this blog essay on her column, appearing there as a wonderfully-streamlined version of the blog care of Mayuga's own experienced hands. I am tremendously honored.

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