Whatever happened to the new National Artists?
I got a series of messages from a fellow member of the Philippine Macintosh Users Group a few weeks ago, but it had nothing to do with Macs or computers; of all things, it had to do with the actress Nora Aunor and the National Artist Award. I thought it was interesting and compelling enough to take up in this corner, since Iâ€™d been wondering about some of the same things myself.
Before I go one line further, let me say that I was a member of a fairly large lower-level committee that was part of the recent selection process for the National Artist Awards. I signed a non-disclosure agreement when I joined that committee, so nothing I say here will be emanating from our discussions in that committee, which will remain confidential.
Whatâ€™s no longer a secret, since itâ€™s emerged from other sources online, is that a number of people, including Nora Villamayor (a.k.a. Nora Aunor), have been recommended for recognition as National Artists. The recommendations of our committee went up to yet another committee or council for final evaluation, before being forwarded to the Office of the President for proclamation, prior to the conferment of the awards themselves.
So far, so good. The prescribed process was rigorously respected and followed by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, which oversees it (the board of the Cultural Center of the Philippines weighs in, I believe, at the last stage prior to sending the final list off to MalacaÃ±ang). This was of keen interest to many Filipino artists and the cultural community â€” not just the names of the prospective NAs, but even more importantly, the process itself â€” given how the Palace, in the past and most recently in 2009, had cavalierly disregarded the rules and common decency to hand out the award to its favorites.
Itâ€™s been half a year, however, since that final list reached the OP â€” and so far, thatâ€™s where itâ€™s been, gathering dust and gathering rumor. The loudest of these rumors has it that Noraâ€™s run-ins with the law â€”presumably a question of morals â€” have held up her proclamation, as well as that of the others in her batch, and those before them. (Letâ€™s not forget that, as a result of the infamous dagdag-bawas that happened under GMA, the proclamation of legitimately nominated National Artists such as the late Federico Aguilar Alcuaz and Lazaro Francisco â€” not to mention that of the eminent musician Ramon Santos, who was unceremoniously dropped to make way for others far less qualified â€”was indefinitely postponed.) Another bit of speculation has it that the Palace was betting on the late Dolphy, rather than Nora, to make it through the selection process, and that if Dolphyâ€™s not getting it, then neither will Nora.
That will be a very sad and silly thing to do, if thereâ€™s any truth to the scuttlebutt. I respect and admire the work of both Nora Aunor and Dolphy, and myself would like to see them both recognized as NAs. Iâ€™ve even had the pleasure and the privilege of writing a couple of film scripts for Nora (among them, â€œIna Ka ng Anak Moâ€) and of writing a back-cover blurb for Dolphyâ€™s searingly excellent autobiography, released shortly before his death.
But if Dolphy â€” the comic genius, but also easily the popular and sentimental choice â€” was indeed excluded for whatever reason from the final list of recommendees this time, penalizing Nora with a similar rejection isnâ€™t going to make things right. Instead, Iâ€™d be the first to sign on to a new campaign to endorse Dolphy in the next round of selections. Employing a moral argument is just going to make things worse, by introducing a spurious element into the issue. The religious conservatives wonâ€™t like it, but the plain fact is that artistic excellence and personal morality have never made a necessary if a happy marriage; letâ€™s not ask of our finest artists what we donâ€™t and canâ€™t demand of our national heroes.
Early last month, my PhilMUG friend Don Rapadas wrote NCCA chairman Felipe de Leon Jr. a letter to inquire about the case, and he gave me his permission to quote from that letter:
â€œI am Zandro G. Rapadas of the Nora Aunor for National Artist Movement, and it is my privilege to write to you and thank you for the honor you bestowed on Ms. Nora C. Villamayor at the 6th Ani ng Dangal Awards held last Sunday, February 2. It was a well-appreciated and regarded state recognition for the international honors that Ms. Villamayor brought to the country in 2013, particularly for her Best Actress wins at the 7th Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong, and at the 3rd Sakhalin International Film Festival in Russia.
â€œWith all her achievements to date locally and abroad, there is no doubt that Nora C. Villamayorâ€™s time has come to be officially recognized and honored as a National Artist, hence our official nomination of her to the Order of National Artists in November 2012â€¦.
â€œThe media and the public have known of the six artists endorsed for confirmation, proclamation, and conferment by MalacaÃ±ang since early October last year, and we welcomed it with much rejoicing, because a new set of National Artists means the restoration of trust and respect for this state honor, which was unfortunately tarnished with the 2009 controversy involving artists added by MalacaÃ±ang for proclamation and conferment.
â€œWe believe it was fair enough to make this information known to the public because the decision by the joint boards of the CCP and NCCA has already been made and submitted to MalacaÃ±ang, and what follows should be transparency in the final stage of the process and, on the part of the public, vigilance to help ensure that the transgressions of 2009 will remain a thing of the past. After all, this is a state honor, and the institutions involved operate on public funds, hence the public interest.
Moreover, the deciding officials are public officials, and a â€˜public office is a public trust.â€™ Certainly, no one can take us to task for being watchful this time.
â€œAnd watchful we have been. We know that after the Honors Committee convened to discuss the endorsement, they went back to your office and requested you to comment on issues raised about morality and past legal cases against Ms. Villamayor, your candidate for National Artist for Film and Broadcast Arts. And we understand that the NCCA has informed MalacaÃ±ang that it does not take issue with the points raised, and that the Office of the Executive Secretary, who chairs the Honors Committee, has acknowledged receiving this reply early in January this year, and was passed on to the MalacaÃ±ang Protocol Office for the information of other members of the Honors Committee. Since then and up until last Tuesday, February 4, the latest tracking of its status notes that itâ€™s still with the Protocol Office.
â€œWhy itâ€™s taken this long, we do not know and we do not understand. But what we do know is that out there in the print and social media recently, many are already wondering whatâ€™s keeping the Palace from officially proclaiming the new set of National Artists. And included in this anxious waiting are some questions on why the NCCA and CCP have kept mum on the matter. I have attached in this email correspondence a few of these expressions of concern against the long wait.
â€œOn a final note, I wish to underscore that this is not just about our anxious waiting for Nora C. Villamayorâ€™s own cause, but more importantly our desire to see that the original dignity of the National Artist honor is restored with full respect and regard for its original intent and purpose, despite it being subject to political prerogative.â€
Don Rapadasâ€™ last point is an important one to note â€” this is as much about the process as the person. February, our National Arts Month, would have been the perfect time to honor our new National Artistsâ€”including the rightful ones from the previous batch; letâ€™s not wait another year to make these long-overdue amends to Philippine cultureâ€™s overlooked heroes, and letâ€™s hope Don gets his answer soon.
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