We, the members of the Film Desk of the Young Critics Circle (YCC), denounce once more the exclusion of Nora Aunor (Nora Cabaltera Villamayor) from the roster of artists inducted into the Order of National Artists (ONA) this year, and reiterate our call for the artistic community to rethink and reform the ONA.
In 2014, Aunor passed all levels of screening in the legally constituted process, presided over by the pertinent state cultural institutions, earning her a place in the shortlist of individuals recommended for conferral with the rank and honor of National Artist by the president. She was denied the accolade, however, on grounds that were, at best, spurious: Benigno S. Aquino III alleged that Aunor had been convicted and punished in connection with a drug case, a claim that was as self-righteous as it was misbegotten—which is to say, completely. Along with other concerned parties, we condemned the lack of rigor in thought and awareness of responsibility that underpinned Aquino’s decision.
Owing to her inclusion in the previous shortlist, Aunor was automatically entered into this year’s shortlist, giving rise to the hope that past caprice would be corrected. Like before, her name was dropped; unlike before, the president has deigned to provide no explanation so far. During the formal ceremonies to confer the ONA and other cultural awards, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, as is his wont, spent much of his time railing disjointedly against human rights advocates and other critics of the increasingly defective democracy that he helms.
The day after, his spokesperson Salvador Panelo addressed the omission of Aunor with remarks clad in condescension and incoherence. Aunor was “still young”, he said, and would become National Artist “in God’s perfect time”. Panelo added that her non-proclamation as National Artist was meant to “spare [her] from the emotional and psychological torment coming from the barrage of mixed reactions the award will bring”.
If Aunor has been “spared” any “torment”, it is that which is bound up with the prospect that her celebrated body of work will be instrumentalized—and therefore drained of its vitality—by the present dispensation in order to obscure or detract from the various forms of violence that it has inflicted upon the country.
Choosing National Artists entails the involvement of artists, cultural workers, and government representatives in a lengthy, multi-tiered process that, whatever its flaws, aims to produce a consensus on the basis of judgments that are as sound as its participants can muster. That the consensus around Aunor has now been dismissed twice over through the exercise of presidential prerogative, premised on reasons poorly conceived and ill-articulated, can only register as sheer waste, as wanton abuse, no matter how ostensibly legal. Aunor herself has said, “Bakit pa nila ako isinali rito kung hindi naman pala ako karapat-dapat?”
The assaults that continue to be visited against the integrity and meaningfulness of the ONA compel us to ask what measures can be taken in order to safeguard it from political whim and interference, to ensure that all who take part in the process, from the initial nominators to the president, act in good faith and are made fully accountable for their decisions. We suggest, as a beginning, that the confidentiality veiling the selection process from the scrutiny of the Filipino people, on whose behalf the ONA is bestowed, be revisited: does it bolster independent assessment or facilitate unscrupulous manipulation?
More importantly, considering that the ONA—or indeed any other prize—should not be taken as the definitive measure of an artist’s achievement, it bears asking: What are the reasons that this award persists, nearly five decades after its invention by a self-styled patroness of the arts? What is meant by “achievement”, anyway, and for whom and against whom is it invoked? How are artists, academics, scholars, critics, and cultural workers—we are no exception—complicit in and culpable for the corruption and dysfunction that seem to be inextricable from this highest of honors awarded by the state to artists?
These and other questions all of us must challenge ourselves with again and again if we are serious about overhauling not only the ONA but also the broader infrastructure for arts and culture in which the ONA is but one part.