Senior artists deserve our respect and gratitude
One key reason why we work so hard to make sure that the National Artist award goes to deserving winners is the sad fact that we know from experience that it’s really hard to be an artist in the Philippines.
Many genuine artists are poorly compensated and disrespected, while some less gifted others are lionized and richly rewarded for what is actually mediocre and merely decorative work.
A glaring case in point was theater pioneer Freddie Guerrero. He contributed so much to the country’s then-fledging theater scene, and yet he lived or survived in relative penury.
One of his more appreciative and grateful students, Behn Cervantes, was incensed at this, particularly when Freddie lost his small residence on-campus.
That’s why, years before Freddie died, we campaigned for him to be named National Artist, so he could benefit from the prized honor’s monetary emoluments—and, even more importantly, for him to feel appreciated and valued.
Despite our best efforts, however, Freddie died in penury, without getting the award. Whereupon Behn organized an “unofficial” National Artist award ceremony for Freddie at UP, which was attended by an overflow crowd of artists and leaders who similarly felt that he deserved the official honor.
Some years later, Freddie was officially elevated to National Artist for Theater—a belated decision that saddened instead of consoled us, because he was no longer around to savor the psychic satisfaction, and bask in the nation’s gratitude for his pioneering work.
It was made even more ironic by the fact that, after he had failed to get the official honor, Freddie had not come up with new works—and yet he was belatedly cited and rewarded—after the fact.
Having been involved in the National Artist process’ different levels through the years, some senior artists consult us from time to time on how they can come up with successful bids for the premier award.
We tell them that, based on sad experience, being exceptionally talented is not the award’s deciding factor.
Since so many people are vying for the award and the prestige and many perks attached to it, “artistic politics” and connections are sometimes or often resorted to, resulting in its conferment on some undeserving awardees.
Yes, they can do their best to make their exceptional talent shine through and forcefully speak for itself—but, if they fail, they shouldn’t conclude that they’re flawed and insufficient artists.
Still, genuinely exceptional artistic talent should be hailed and rewarded. So, if some existing awards are unreliable touchstones for this, enlightened appreciators of artistic expression should go out of their way to themselves do the honoring and rewarding.
Some younger artists have a poor or shallow sense of history or previous achievements, so they have to go out of their way to give credit where credit is due.
They should realize that they are actually standing on the shoulders of the exceptional artists who have gone before them, and that some of their achievements now would not be possible without the “presaging” work of their seniors—and betters.
So, the next time you meet an “old” artist, don’t dismiss him as a useless vestige of the now-irrelevant past. He or she is your parent or grandparent, who fought preparatory creative wars before you were artistically “born.”
Believe it, because you too will step into their shoes one day: Senior artists deserve our respect and gratitude!
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