Reforms now will redeem National Artist awards
Our front page commentary last Sunday (“Protests over new awardees should finally lead to reforms”) on the latest national artists controversy has elicited follow-up requests for a longer and more detailed discussion of what those comprehensive reforms should involve.
We have been calling for an exhaustive review of the entire National Artist selection process ever since the big controversy and scandal over four dubious, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo-“inserted” conferees way back in 2009. But it was only when the “Nora noninclusion” issue made the contentious awards hit the headlines again that our arts leaders have finally agreed that reforms are urgently needed to rehabilitate the diminished artistic honor.
Well, better late than later.
To redeem the country’s top artistic honor, the reforms shouldn’t be piecemeal and should go way beyond the “Nora issue.” Truth to tell, there’s more at stake here than just a single contentious “nonaward.” It’s the entire selection process that should be reconsidered. We know whereof we speak, because we were involved in all of the various stages of that selection process for about a decade.
First, we were tapped to chair the selection committee for nominees for the broadcast arts category. As chair, we moved up to the next level, at which all of the different art committees’ nominees were vetted against one another.
This resulted in a combined short list of nominees for all of the arts fields, which were then submitted to the joint boards of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) for selection of the actual conferees for that particular cycle. By that time, we had been made a trustee of the CCP, so we participated in the final stage of voting as well.
As we moved up through all the stages or layers involved, we saw a number of points which, in our considered view, threatened to weaken and compromise the awards’ value and credibility. These key points are what we should discuss, reevaluate and reform.
We should do so not for subjective considerations, but because being a real artist in this country is a difficult task. So, our best creative talents should be rewarded for their important and rigorously achieved contributions to the nation’s heart and soul.
Our estimate is that fully one-third of past National Artist conferees have been relatively undeserving of the signal honor, for one reason or another. So, we must make doubly sure that the next selection cycle will produce truly worthy “winners.”
The reforms should start at the first committee level. The problem at this stage is that some of the “experts” chosen to do the initial selecting for outstanding artists in a specific field tend to be “purists” or academic types whose concept of artistry is theoretical rather than hands-on.
That’s why some gifted artists don’t make it through this crucial first stage, frustrating their bid for an honor that they may richly deserve. So, to set things right at this first level, practicing rather than theoretical “experts” should be chosen.
It’s also important that working artists be nominated, not outstanding teachers, organizers, critics and art association leaders, as is too often the case.
Quite a number of deficient or mediocre “artists” sometimes successfully parlay their other skills and/or connections to get nominated, which helps explain why so many nominees—and winners—turn out to be dubious choices for undeserved distinction.
It’s important, therefore, that everyone involved be reminded that this is an artistic award, which means that winners should make it on the strength of their high level of creativity, not for any other consideration.
Moving up to the next level, where the different committees’ nominees are discussed in contention with one another and pared down to a short list for the final voters to consider: The major problem here is the fact that some of the decision-makers at this higher level aren’t knowledgeable about all of the arts. Thus, they aren’t able to insightfully compare one artist’s cumulative achievements to another’s, and decide whose total body of work is more award-worthy.
Granted, it isn’t easy to find such omni-competent vetters, but they have to be found, or else this tougher, “competitive” level might come up with a short list that’s less than completely credible and reliable.
As for the final voting stage involving the CCP and NCCA boards, the problem here is that some of the voters, by their own admission, aren’t all that competent about making comparative choices at the highest level of artistic expression and communication.
This is particularly true of some government officials whose offices become ex-officio board members of the NCCA, even if the areas they represent have little to do with the arts, per se.
How do we overcome this considerable obstacle? The voters should go into a much longer and more comprehensive period of artistic discussion, understanding and immersion before they finally and more insightfully cast their vote.
Granted these reforms are difficult to achieve, it still must be done if the National Artist awards are to reclaim their diminished credibility, value and esteem. What’s at stake here is the establishment of the highest standards for artistic expression and communication in this country, for younger artists to be inspired by, and aspire to.
Aside from those key reform areas, other aspects of the National Artist awards should also be reconsidered such as the “presidential prerogative” factor, the “artistic connections and clout” angle, the “world-class” colonial bias and the “I’ll help you win now if you’ll help me win next time” barter arrangement.
But these are details. What’s most important is to address the major unresolved issues and weaknesses we’ve mentioned before they return to haunt us again.
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