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Memo for President P-Noy: The National Artist Award — re-examination needed

Illustration by IGAN D’BAYAN

It’s been 40 years since the National Artist Award was founded in 1972 by Ferdinand Marcos. Through the years, controversy has hounded the award. Presidents have interfered in the selection process and cultural workers demand less political interference in the process. Some of the awardees, on close examination, never deserved the honor conferred on them.

What are the realities?

The National Artist Award is a presidential award and no president wants to be a simple rubber stamp — this is an insult to his office. The award is funded by government money. As such, it will always be subject to political influence.

What to do?

I have given this matter some thinking and I am well aware of what the award means. I am also personally aware of the competitiveness of artists — they value their opinions with such passion, it can border on violence.

In the discussions to improve the selection process, some cultural leaders want the president‘s role diminished or totally obliterated. Such a suggestion should not even be considered. The prestige of the award will be diminished if it does not have the imprimatur of the highest elected official in the country. I emphasized the word “elected.”

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Cultural workers should not be that conceited; who gives them legitimacy? Who elects them?

This is one reality that cultural workers should never ignore because they do not live in a vacuum, just as their art must also have a wider meaning.

The President must now convene the committees involved and work out a new charter (which will have the force of law) to make the process letter, and make the award more prestigious.  

These are my suggestions and I hope they’ll be accepted.

At any given time, there should only be seven National Artists, two from the seven categories. Upon the death of a National Artist, only then should the deceased be replaced through the established selection process. The selection committee should be convened immediately after the National Artist dies, so that within a month after the necrology, the committee can submit to the President a list of five nominees.

Several distinguished artists are functionaries of government, of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). They should not be excluded, but they should submit themselves to the selection process and should not be allowed to vote.

The President may also submit nominees.

There will be no posthumous award.

The new National Artist will be selected by the President from the list of five finalists determined by the selection committee. This will be similar to the appointment of the new Supreme Court Justice from a list submitted to the President by the Judicial Bar Council. In this way, the Chief Executive will have the final say on the selection process. But the Chief Executive cannot add or detract from the submitted list.

The emoluments for the National Artist will consist of the following:

A monthly allowance equal to that of the current pay of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Complete medical assistance, hospitalization including cost of medicines, doctor consultation. All these must be in the Philippines.

The initial award should be a million pesos to be increased, in accordance with prevailing financial levels.

A million pesos annually for a project to be undertaken by the National Artist as approved by the NCCA.

The other honors, emoluments as already specified.

To prevent the proliferation of categories, the award should be given only to the most important artists in the Seven Arts. The award for dressmakers for instance, should be scrapped.

The selection of the National Artist should be strictly limited to the following categories:

Music — composer, singer/musician, conductor;

Literature — poet, fictionist, playwright;

Visual Arts — painter, sculptor;

Architecture — architect;

Theater — director, actor/actress;

Dance — choreographer, performer, dancer;

Film — director, actor/actress

Honorary functions

The National Artist may be given by the President certain ceremonial functions. The American Poet Laureate, for instance, is the ranking officer of the US Library of Congress.

They will in no way participate in the administration of these institutions though they may make suggestions. They will represent these institutions only in official functions.

The National Artist for Literature as president of the National Library; the National Artist for the Visual Arts as president of the National Museum; the National Artist for Music as president of the Cultural Center, etc.

While the selection process for the National Artist is being reformed, the selection of the highest officials of both the Cultural Center and the NCCA should be studied — that officials who make the final decisions in these institutions should themselves be the highest caliber as cultural workers themselves — workers who have the full respect of the cultural community. Not just the highest officials, but these in the board that direct our country’s cultural development.

I find it contemptible to see bureaucrats who have no knowledge at all about the creative process, who are unfamiliar with culture itself, making crucial decisions in the NCCA.

And finally, funding. Former Senator Edgardo Angara who was foremost in the formation of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts told me way back that the institution has money but this money, as the NCCA officials confirm, is withheld by the Department of Budget. Secretary Butch Abad, please take note.

This must be released so that the Commission can fund its projects properly.

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