Good news, bad news for culture


Katrina Stuart Santiago

Ever since President Duterte came into power, the only time(s) we’ve ever had a sense of what he thinks of arts and culture is when he appoints people to cultural institutions.

And then there are those instances when we just hear people speaking as supporters of the President.

Say, Freddie Aguilar saying he had been promised a Department of Culture and in place of that, the chairmanship of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). Or that time last year when we were told about an arts and culture agenda being built through the funds of someone who had campaigned for the President. This was an arts and culture agenda based solely on cultural organizations, none of which could stand for the collective needs of cultural workers. There was no transparency as far as building that arts and culture agenda was concerned, and even as we were told that the documents would be released, it’s been months and we’ve seen absolutely nothing.

“New” NCCA Chair

Given Aguilar’s premature press releases about being promised NCCA, it was difficult not to celebrate the fact that National Artist Virgilio Almario had gotten the NCCA Chairmanship. Never mind that he had been in that post before, and never mind that as Chair of the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF) he had wanted all of us to start calling Pilipinas, Filipinas.

Unsurprisingly, during his oathtaking, Almario talked about language and literature as part of the Philippines’ “intangible heritage” that needs to be preserved. He said: “Ang bawat wika natin ay isang kamalig, isang bodega ng karunungan. If we study our language further, we will know who our cultural bearers are.” He also asserted the need for a “common repository for all epics” and “finding a way to reintroduce these to the millennials, whether through literary context, novels and theater, or lecture series” (BusinessWorld, 18 Jan).

One hopes that Almario would do one over other cultural officials – appointed and otherwise – and actually give us a sense of what else he plans to do the next three years. One wishes for an NCCA that is inclusive and not exclusive, that is the first to treat its cultural workers better by fighting for a plantilla for its staff, that defies the Daang-Matuwid-instituted requirement that all projects to be funded pass through the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

One dreams of a more relevant NCCA, one that not only maintains but also exercises its independence by making the institution more relevant, more engaged, in the issues of nation.

Old plans for culture

But contrary to doing something “new,” Almario seems to be pushing for something old.

Try 2016: the year Senator Loren Legarda filed Senate Bill 31, or an Act Establishing the Department of Culture and the Arts, Strengthening the National Endowment for Culture and the Arts, and for Other Purposes.

Or even older: 2008. Because according to Almario he was part of the group that conceptualized this during the University of the Philippines’ Centennial Year.

That’s seven years ago, and one hopes Almario’s mind might still change, owing to what we know now to be this President’s tendency to appoint only people who campaigned for him, never mind their skills, experience, or credentials. A Department of Culture would allow for the President to appoint anyone at all as its Secretary: and we know now how problematic that actually is for culture.

It is also ironic that Almario, whose new post as NCCA Chair is a product of the “independence” that the law gives NCCA, would so easily and quickly sacrifice that independence for whatever benefits we might get from a Department of Culture. And what benefits will there be, exactly?

Asked about the difference between the NCCA and a Culture Department, Almario had said: “The NCCA do <sic> not have branches in regions even though we’ve been coordinating with them since [before]. They usually complain that it’s always those in Manila who gets the grants, which is not true” (BusinessWorld, 18 Jan).

If it’s not true, then why shift to a culture department at all? Getting regional offices that will do work already being done anyway seems like too small a reason to sacrifice the independence that the NCCA already has under the law.

Unions, not unity

One hopes Almario realizes that there is value in reassessing this push for a Department of Culture at this point in time, given the kind of government we have, which does nothing but encourage patronage politicking to create and be able to sell the notion of a consensus or sectoral support. This is ultimately what ails our artistic and cultural production: the idea that we have to be united as a sector in order to be productive, when in fact a great part of cultural productivity is borne of critique and discourse. When in fact what we should work on is building a culture of criticism and creativity, where what is appreciated and encouraged is freedom and independence, not homogeneity and cliquishness. That would also be the ideal conditions under which real artist unions might be created – a job that I am certain the NCCA is up for.

In the meantime, it is telling that the person who would celebrate Almario’s push for a Department of Culture is Aguilar himself: after all he was promised he would lead that Department once it is created.
Pray tell, why are we getting Aguilar’s hopes up?


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  1. If culture is defined as the way we do things, what culture then are you referring to? Our westernized culture, or our original culture before our westernization? How did we do things before the Catholic priests came to erase our culture? We will never know until we try to find out, and to do that we have to start with language. Since language is the bearer of culture, then our insistence on English makes our view of culture as exclusively western, doesn’t it? I have always believed that our biggest problem is our westernization which has resulted in what is called our damaged culture, and the obvious solution is to Filipinize. The first step to Filipinization is to use the native tongue. If only for this, I think Almario knows what he is doing. Do you know what you are doing?