Two traditions, two art awards
In a society where the arts usually receive perfunctory notice in official discourse and national conversation, honors accorded to artists, because rarely given, must be appreciated in the highest terms.
In one of his celebrated plays, the late fictionist Rogelio Sicat portrayed the condition of Filipino artists as utterly abject. This is so because they are misunderstood and largely ignored by a society infatuated with “movie celebrities, boxers, and basketball stars,” a society easily pleased when regaled with news of government scandals, disreputable behavior in the world of showbiz, or triumph in the boxing ring. In such a society, artists are almost always sidelined if not doomed, as portrayed in Sicat’s play. Hence, there is indeed cause for celebration when artists are not only noted but extolled, and especially so when the recognition comes in the form of the country’s highest honors in the arts.
In 2018, such honors were given to seven luminaries of Philippine arts and letters who were declared National Artists: Francisco Mañosa (Architecture and Allied Arts), Eric de Guia, also known as ‘Kidlat Tahimik’ (Film and Broadcast Arts), Ramon Muzones and Resil Mojares (Literature), Raymundo ‘Ryan’ Cayabyab (Music), Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio (Theater), and Lauro ‘Larry’ Alcala (Visual Arts). Moreover, three master weavers—Ambalang Ausalin of Basilan, Estelita Bantilan of Sarangani, and Yabing Masalon Dulo of South Cotabato—were given the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA) or the National Living Treasures Award. Together, the National Artist and GAMABA awards represent the highest official honors that Filipino artists can seek to attain.
The ritual of government paying tribute to artists through the granting of highly coveted official awards is an entrenched practice in various parts of the world, with some transcending national boundaries to assume the semblance of global accolade. The United States Congress hands out the National Medal of Arts, the most prestigious in the US. France has its Ordre des arts etdes lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) to recognize the most significant contributions to art and literature. In the United Kingdom, major contribution to the arts (and other fields) can be recognized through appointments to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. In Japan the greatest honor is undoubtedly the recognition as Living National Treasure, a certification given to individuals or groups who have attained extraordinary high levels of mastery in skills recognized as integral to the country’s intangible cultural heritage (i.e., traditional crafts and performing arts).
It is worth noting that in the Philippines, not one but two distinct honors are given to its most exemplary art practitioners. The Order of the National Artists of the Philippines (Orden ng mga Pambansang Alagad ng Siningng Pilipinas) is bestowed on Filipinos who have made substantial contributions to the growth of Philippine music, dance, theater, contemporary arts (e.g., painting, sculpture, graphic arts), literature, film and broadcast arts, architecture, design, and allied arts, with provision for the creation of new categories (often contested) to accommodate problematic cases. It is important to note that the National Artist award is not just about artistic excellence—one of its criteria has to do with how the artist’s corpus has contributed to the articulation of a “Filipino sense of nationhood.”
The GAMABA, on the other hand, is given to those who have contributed to the preservation and development of the country’s intangible cultural heritage. The award recognizes achievements in various categories of traditional folk art: folk architecture, maritime transport, weaving, carving, performing arts, literature, graphic and plastic arts, ornament, textile or fiber art, pottery, and other artistic expressions of traditional culture. In making a specific and fundamental reference to intangible heritage, the GAMABA underscores not only individual mastery of a particular craft but accomplishment in the sharing and teaching of the skills that will ensure the sustainability of the art form.
The National Artist Award was established through a presidential proclamation in 1972. The GAMABA, on the other hand, was instituted in 1992. The gap of twenty years that separates the birthing of the two awards could lead some to suspect that the latter was just a postscript, perhaps conceptualized when some culture aficionados, concerned with the valuation of the handcrafted works that had intruded into art, domestic, and corporate spaces previously assigned to the fine arts, began to ask why these repositioned crafts—famously encapsulated by Sally Price in the term “primitive art in civilized places”— had been left out in the valorization of artistic goods. The suspicion is abetted by the fact that there is a magisterial Cultural Center of the Philippines for classical music, ballet, “legitimate” theater, and the like, and a hastily built Folk Arts Center (later renamed as the Tanghalang Francisco Balagtas) for pop music, beauty contests, and cultural ventures of a more plebian bent.
While the existence of two important awards for artistic production is, on the whole, a matter for rejoicing, there is a persistent misgiving about the dichotomy that the two awards unavoidably create—it can be argued that the National Artist and GAMABA awards tend to reinforce a binary between fine and folk art, and this binarism creates a hierarchy of value in which one of the binary pair becomes the inferior other. Is the GAMABA a lesser award?
The administrators of the awards will naturally argue that the two awards are equivalent. However, outside of academic or intellectual disputations, this would appear untenable—there will always be people who will insist that if a hierarchy is to be invoked, the fine arts would be ascendant and therefore the National Artist Award is the more important one. The National Artist Award would seem to be superior, given not only its longer history but also the extent of the coverage that it gets in the mass media—there is something newsworthy in the fact that the selection of National Artists has always been a contentious issue not only because a large number of exemplary artists are competing for a very limited number of slots but also because there are always procedural and political issues that tend to undermine the integrity of the selection process. Controversies command attention. Another major factor is the familiarity of influential cultural arbiters with the works of our fine artists—the works of major artists easily lend themselves to reviews and other forms of critical appraisal that bolster their claim to fame and superiority.
In contrast, the folk artists honored by GAMABA are unknown creators who have never been part of our national consciousness, plucked out of rural anonymity by the awards but remaining largely invisible even after the conferment of national honors. Traditional performances (epic chanting, sacred rituals, etc.) and handcrafted objects (textiles, baskets, pottery, tribal sculpture, and the like) rarely get into the news, unless they find their way to “civilized places.” Thus re-contextualized, they may become a bit more familiar and thus a bit more manageable. Viewers may ascribe certain aesthetic values to them but how close these are to the original aesthetic impulses that prompted their creation remains uncertain.
The failure to properly appreciate folk art and comprehend its commensurate value is rooted in the inability to see its rootedness in a tradition that is radically different from the largely Eurocentric principles that govern the creation (and influence our perception) of fine art. When people steeped in Western aesthetics look at and come to appreciate traditional art—the art of small-scale societies, as a textbook proclaims—they do so with the generally automatic assistance of a set of aesthetic norms derived from their immersion in Western-inflected art. When these norms, however, do not jive with what they see, they will most likely dismiss the art in question as incomprehensible, even absurd, or they may just focus on certain surface features that strike them as pleasurable. This, however, is not understanding but could simply be a matter of idiosyncrasy in taste.
Clearly, if we are to foster appreciation for the works and activities of our traditional artists, and if we are to neutralize the pernicious view that the traditional arts are the inferior cousins of the fine arts, we must allot bigger space and more venues for the articulation of what they are and what they mean.
The divide that separates fine and folk art (and extension, the separation of the National Artist Award and GAMABA) must perhaps remain because they are essentially different, emanating as they do from two different traditions. Our fine arts and our tendency to see them as more important are explainable in terms of our historical encounters—the arts that we privilege are an aspect of our colonial experience. On the other hand, our traditional arts, what we label as ‘folk’, are rooted in native soil—and often submerged in quotidian drabness. They must be recuperated through a willful effort to whether these terms are of a pragmatic or ethical nature, or terms that we must re-learn according to an ethos that by we have nearly forgotten.
Delfin Tolentino, Jr.