Virtue, excellence and the artist
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - July 14, 2014 - 12:00am

In denying Nora Aunor the National Artist Award because of her involvement with drugs, the President has set a new and very high standard in the selection process. This has many implications which affect all of us. We are now made aware of ethics as a major consideration in our judgment of excellence.

This view is nothing new — it hearkens back to the old religions of Asia, to ancient Greek philosophy as propounded by Socrates, that men must aspire to both virtue and excellence, inseparable as the truest measure by which we should live.

The Ramon Magsaysay Award holds on to this twin principle. And now, the National Artist Award — should it now accept this new dimension as enunciated by no less than the President?

First, let us examine the question of drug addiction. Of course, we all know that it is very harmful to the individual, not just to a person but to a society in general when we consider the wider involvement of drug dealers, pushers, the crime and violence and finally, the damaged minds and families caused by addiction.

But we can also see easily that drug users themselves are not criminals. Take opium addiction in Asia. In the recent past, many upper class drug users in Southeast Asia took opium often as a form of relaxation. It was smoked comfortably in the home.

I myself have tried opium and its derivative, morphine, marijuana, even LSD in my younger days. Did that make me a criminal? Gluttony is one of the seven deadly “sins.” I love eating and could be accused of gluttony. But have I ever stolen food from someone?

Did Nora Aunor, not even convicted of using drugs, ever commit any crime against fellow human beings?

We can see then from the examples I have presented that what is illegal is not necessarily immoral. Conversely, what is often legal is not necessarily moral.

I have always pointed out that artists, particularly writers, should not be judged on the basis of their work alone but by their very lives. Literature is the noblest of the arts, and writers should automatically be of noble bearing. It is not so; they can be cheats, corruptors, wife beaters.

If this moral standard is applied to our cultural workers, shall we conclude that all the artists who pandered to the Marcoses and their immoral regime are also tainted?

How clean is clean? And who are we to judge what is sinful or not? We must not forget the injunction, “He who is without sin should cast the first stone.” We will then come to the final verdict of government: it is legal but not moral. And from this, we will then have to ask as well this question that has bothered the ancients and even us to this very day.

Is art moral?

One great value of literature which is perhaps our utmost need today is that literature teaches us ethics. Only literature does — not years of studying theology, cosmology or even philosophy.

What literature does is, in its presentation or human dilemmas, it portrays moral problems which we can resolve ourselves. In their resolution, we discover our conscience, confirm what it urges us to do, and reinforce in the process the humanity that is latent in all of us.

All too often, some third-rate poet or painter would pass off his boorish manners as a privilege or even as a consequence of his artistic temper. An artist’s quirky manners may be pardonable depending on the acceptance of such manners by society, but such offensiveness is not a virtue, nor a good excuse, and certainly unpardonable when such behavior is offensive.

It has been implied that the late Nick Joaquin should be excused for his drunkenness when he had too much beer. He was, after all, a great writer.

Wrong. In the first place, Nick never became drunk with beer. He got noisy, that was all. Knowing the man very well, he knew all the time and remembered all the time what he said even when he was loaded with beer.

It was the poet Jose Garcia Villa who was often obnoxious when sober.

Some 20 years ago, the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation gave the much-coveted award to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the novelist from Indonesia, Mochtar Lubis, himself an RM Awardee, several Indonesian writers and I, myself, objected to the award not because Promoedya was a bad writer but because during the Sukarno regime, when he was very much in power, he burned the books of those who opposed Sukarno, stoned their meetings and saw to it that they did not get jobs.

There were several who defended the RM Award, but it has always been the policy of the Foundation to look both at the virtue and excellence of the prospective awardees and insofar as virtue was concerned. Pramoedya was undeserving.

A silly cultural commentator stated that Hitler would have redeemed himself if he was a good poet.

These world famous writers could be criticized for their politics: Ezra Pound the American poet and D’Anunzio, the Italian writer supported fascism, T.S. Eliot was anti-Semitic, Jean Paul Sartre was an active supporter of Soviet communism. But as individuals, I do not think they oppressed or committed crimes against their fellow beings.

From a broader view, they may be accused of giving legitimacy to political movements that enslaved and killed thousands, but even the most noble ideas as embodied in religion have ended in the violation of human rights as Christian and Islamic fundamentalism have illustrated in the past and now.

Art as sound, as image, as a replica of reality on the stage and as visual representation —they are, in a sense, all passive and inanimate — but can speak direct to the heart and mind, just as the individual who has never been to a museum or attended a symphony concert can still be an awed spectator of beauty in nature, the idyllic miracle of sunrise and sunset. It is how these influence the reader — a moving section of a novel which scalds his eyes with tears, or inflames him with anger. It is this influence loaded with moral implications, as thought is transformed into action and belief, and that art ultimately impacts on people.

It is possible for a sinner to make a work of art which achieves this moral impact, or even a tyrant to act nobly even just once in his lifetime, to reveal in that very act his humanity. For this human being who was made in God’s image, illustrates the nobility that is in every man. As my Random House editor, Samuel Vaughan, emphasized,  “No character is all evil or virtue.”

It is this ambivalence, this ambiguity which gives art its wide dimension but in the very end, I hope that art will always affirm the meaning which we seek, even without our knowing that we are seeking it.

Writers are supreme egoists; it is their ego which is their most precious possession and material for creativity. But in the end, writers have to transcend themselves, and latch on to ideals which confirm their nobility, ideals alike truth and justice which they want for themselves, but which they instinctively know, others want them, too.

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