What makes artists “national”

If a survey were to be run on how many Filipinos know the country’s National Artists and their works, the results would be very revealing. They would show that the artists the state celebrates are not necessarily the people’s own choices.  Indeed, rare would be the National Artist who, by his or her work, articulates the nation’s experience and self-understanding and, at the same time, touches the lives of ordinary people.

The reasons for this may be traced to the lack of fit between the nation conjured by the state and the collective identity of the people it hoped to represent. The wider the gap between the two, the larger would be the discrepancy between the nation’s symbols and the people’s heroes.  Every sovereign state seeks to narrow this gap — in many instances, without much success.

It is interesting to analyze the citations for this year’s National Artists. My fellow Inquirer columnist, Ambeth Ocampo, the Chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, has printed the one for Benedicto R. Cabrera (Bencab), the awardee for Visual Arts.  Bencab is cited for “delineating a portrait of his people and conceiving metaphors of their complex national history.”  In particular, his “‘Larawan’ paintings connect his art to the collective consciousness of his compatriots and converse with his other concerns like the depiction of migrants in Europe and America, heroes of struggles, and everyday Filipinos caught up in the cycles and revolutions in culture.”   Finally, “…his vision is resonant because it continually responds to the exigencies of art and society and the aspirations of Filipinos.”  What is clearly highlighted here is not just the artistry of Bencab, but above all his nationalism.

Yet not one line in this eloquent citation refers to how ordinary Filipinos have been affected by Bencab’s work.  He interprets their lives, but has he touched them?  He found meaning in their lives, but has he made their lives more meaningful?  One can only assume that, outside the small community of artists, students, collectors, and writers in this country, only a few have had any acquaintance with his paintings. This is not to take away anything from this fine Filipino artist’s greatness as a painter; for I believe he fully deserves the award.  It is only to emphasize the split between official values and popular values.

On the other hand, I am curious to know how the citation for Fernando Poe Jr. reads.  For lack of space, Ambeth Ocampo did not include it in his column.  For lack of someone from the Poe family to receive it, Malacanang chose not to read it in the presentation ceremonies.  A pity, because FPJ is both a National Artist and a people’s artist.  He did not become great because the movie critics or the culturati liked his films. He became great because ordinary Filipinos went to his movies, and were changed by them.

The gap between the state and the people in former colonies like the Philippines is what nationalist ideology tries to cure.  The leaders of the nation had presumed that the anti-colonial war would automatically galvanize the various communities and classes into one nation.  But, in fact, the emergence of a viable collective national identity – a “political ethnicity,” to borrow from the anthropologist Clifford Geertz — was far from smooth.

Says Geertz:  “Indeed the very success of the independence movements in rousing the enthusiasm of the masses and directing it against foreign domination tended to obscure the frailty and narrowness of the cultural foundations upon which those movements rested, because it led to the notion that anti-colonialism and collective redefinition are the same thing.”  As we have seen in our history, they are not.  The acquisition of sovereignty does not create the nation. The leaders of newly-independent East Timor are now rudely wakened to this truth.

We ourselves arrogantly presumed the integration of the Bangsa Moro into the Filipino nation.  In our quest for self-governance over these islands, we glossed over the political and cultural differences that set the Moros apart from the rest of the population. We short-circuited the tortuous process of creating the collective subject, “from whose will the activities of government seem spontaneously to flow,” by co-opting Moro leaders and turning them into Filipino politicians. We flooded their lands with our settlers, and wove their artistic traditions into the tapestry of the nation’s imagined heritage.  And now we have named the Muslim sculptor Abdulmari Imao as National Artist.  I hope Malacanang is doing so in fair recognition of the man’s artistic achievement, and not as a political concession to his ethnicity.

The elite hijacked Filipino nationalism, and stripped it of its social content.  They became so obsessed with quickly taking over the reins of government that they did not see much value in creating a strong national identity among the people.  They rushed headlong into the project of modernity, even as they paid lip service to a national culture, and promoted rapid Westernization in the end.

Today, 108 years after we first declared ourselves a nation, who we are that did this remains hazy.  We have purchased modernity at great costs to our collective identity.  Yet, just about the mark of modernity we possess is the English language, or what passes for it. Any given language, writes Geertz, is either “a borrowing or a heritage; a passport or a citadel.”  The mass migration of our people shows what English has been for us – a passport.

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