Thinking Allowed – Artistic license to kill

by Nicasio Angelo Agustin

MUCH has been written and said about this year’s controversial conferment of National Artist status on certain individuals who have been deemed undeserving of such an accolade. Allow me to add my two cents’ worth to this issue, which has created an ocean of discontentment and demoralization not only within the artistic community but has rippled through the rest of Philippine society.
Prior to this year’s brouhaha, being a National Artist was considered to be the pinnacle of all recognitions for an individual’s outstanding achievement in the arts. This is because a nominee would have to go pass through a proverbial eye of the needle with the standards set by his most exacting critics – his peers. In Hollywood, while the Oscars are considered to be the most watched awarding event for actors, insiders know that a Screen Actors’ Guild or SAG award is more prestigious because the awardee was chosen not by proponents of popular or commercial media but by the actors themselves. Recognition from your peers – even when you are not very popular to the rest of the world – is the ultimate indicator of how good you really are at your chosen vocation, because you were chosen by the people who know best because they practice the exact same vocation.
I believe the core of this controversy is the fact that “presidential prerogative” dipped its sticky hands into this year’s selection of National Artists. The list initially submitted by the NCCA and CCP to the President for conferment was very unfortunately victimized by the process we refer to as dagdag-bawas: one peer-endorsed artist was dropped from the list and in his place, four names were inserted, including that of a certain Madam who was part of the selection committee and who should have been disqualified por delicadeza.
The reactions of this Fantastic Four encompass the entire spectrum of reactions to controversies. Carlo Caparas held a press conference within the NCCA itself – the exact same body whose stringent set of processes and standards he did not go through and pass. Pitoy Moreno has tried to be genteel about it by refusing to wear his bleeding heart on his scalloped butterfly sleeve. Bobby Manosa has been flying under my radar, and I have yet to hear him comment about his own conferment. And the defiant Madam has upheld the concept of presidential prerogative as reason enough for her own National Artist status.
Being a National Artist is not only a title. Being a National Artist means that Fiilipino taxpayers give you grants, monetary rewards and generous health benefits to comfortably see you through your twilight years – not to mention the more important intangibles of prestige, recognition, respect, dignity. As a taxpayer, I have no axe to grind about giving National Artists what is due them for their sacrifice and contribution to our cultural identity as a people. After all, these deserving individuals went through the most stringent process and their body of work passed the most critical scrutiny.
However, when this stringent process and critical scrutiny is thrown out the window by presidential prerogative, it makes me wonder: why set standards and guidelines when, at the end of the day, these things appear to not mean anything at all pala?
I believe the Philippine artist community and the rest of the Filipino people are willing to follow rules, standards and regulations to have order, development, security and happiness in our country. But if it is our leaders who circumvent these exact rules, standards and regulations they themselves set, then what we have is an ocean of dissent, discontent, disillusionment and disorder.  A presidential prerogative does not equal artistic license and I am sure dagdag-bawas sure as hell was not done for arts’ sake.
Nevertheless, I hope Dolphy will be considered next time.
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