In the middle of writing today’s column, sad sad news stopped me in my tracks.
Nora Aunor is not included in tonight’s announced National Artist Presidential proclamations.
And while I’m glad that Alice Reyes (Dance), Francisco Coching (Visual Arts), Francisco Feliciano (Music), Ramon Santos (Music), Cirilo Bautista (Literature), and Jose Ma. Zaragoza (Architecture) have finally been proclaimed National Artists, there is a real sadness about not seeing Ate Guy on that list.
It’s because this exclusion tells of how government treats culture in this country, and what exactly it holds in such high regard relative to actual creativity and artistry.
The question of morality
The news was aplenty about why the National Artist proclamation took this long, and it had everything to do with Ate Guy being part of that list.
The questions raised against her though had nothing to do with her work as an artist and cultural worker. They would have everything to do with the kind of person she is, the kind of iconography she has, the kind of life she has lived. The grapevine had it that it was the issue of drugs, and tax evasion, and lesbianism, all of which are in Ate Guy’s icon, that was making the President hesitant about signing off on the National Artist list delivered to Malacañang in November.
But all these issues—granted that these are valid concerns of the President—have nothing to do with whether or not a person is fit to be a National Artist. In January of this year, in this same column, I said:
“Nowhere in Proclamation No. 1001 (April 27 1972), which established the Order of the National Artist Award, is there a morality clause; neither is there a sense that one’s tax paying (or non-taxpaying) self needs to be considered in deciding who can be National Artist. If this is true, that we are judging Ate Guy on aspects of her person that have nothing to do with her contributions to Philippine cinema, music and television, then we are being unfair to her. If this is true, and she will lose a National Artist Award based on something that is extraneous to her body of work, then we must hold all National Artists under that same lens.”
What this decision of the President pushes us to do is to ask about the moral compass of all our National Artists, where one’s body of work and contributions to culture become secondary to who our artists are as people. Do they do drugs? Do they pay taxes? Are they homosexual?
These questions are already judgments in fact, and these are judgments that have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not anyone deserves to be National Artist.
Messing with culture
This is the thing: when the President intervenes in this way on cultural affairs, he also ends up putting into question the credibility of our cultural institutions.
Because the list of National Artists delivered to Malacañang in November of last year is one that went through a rigorous and complex process. And while one might beef about it with the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), these cultural institutions own a credibility that allows and empowers them to choose who might be declared as our National Artists. We might question that list of course, but we do not question the process.
The President meanwhile, is disrespecting this process by refusing to proclaim Ate Guy.
What one cannot understand of course is why. What is there to gain by doing this? Who stands to gain by refusing to declare Ate Guy a National Artist?
Wouldn’t it be easier to just sign that recommended list submitted by the National Artist Committee, and once questioned, that the President simply point a finger at that committee? Had the President proclaimed all those on the recommended list, he could invoke his trust in our cultural institutions’ ability to decide on who deserves this award, because that is also a council of peers, and it is a rigorous process that the President himself is not part of.
Which is as it should be, for how else do we try and make the effort of ridding our cultural institutions of politics?
Ah, a fantastic question.
Ate Guy went through the process required to be given a National Artist Award.
Her body of work in culture was assessed to have been worthy of the title and honor. She would’ve been the first female in the roster of National Artists for Cinema. She would’ve been only the second professional actor (after Fernando Poe Jr.) to be given the award. She would’ve been the first National Artist for Cinema, who also has an enviable body of work in Music, Television, and Theater.
Where FPJ was declared as National Artist in 2006 for being a “cultural icon of tremendous audience impact and cinema artist and craftsman—as actor, director, writer and producer,” Ate Guy would’ve been the one National Artist whose body of work traversed theater, music, the concert stage, cinema and television. She would’ve been the first National Artist to predate the notion of a “multimedia” or “all-media” star.
Ate Guy would’ve been the first mass icon in that roster of National Artists. She would be the one representation of our evolution and devolution, as these are revealed in her iconic portrayals of popular characters that are intricately tied to our national becoming. Her body of work is not one that can be snubbed, if we are clear about the value of popular cultural productions, and how for Ate Guy, this has meant going against the grain of mainstream expectations and showbiz conventions.
In 2011, soon after her comeback, I wrote about Ate Guy as magazine covergirl who refused the trappings of photoshop and fakery, and decided to appear with her age showing and a cigarette in hand:
“Ate Guy is everything that contemporary showbiz is not. And that was true long before she left, that was real to anyone who saw her films and respected her daring, this was always true for those of us who couldn’t help but be astounded on the one hand, and then be downright impressed on the other, by the life choices she was making, given the little that we actually knew of her. She was rebel long before it became fashionable to be one, she was rakenrol like no other, and in the midst of that she was inadvertently pointing out that she was—should be—nothing but actress, but singer, but star.
“Ate Guy is the most refreshing cover girl there could ever be. The most powerful, too: she has changed here the way we might view ourselves as women, aging as we all are even as we deny it, looking as she does at that camera and refusing to be objectified by its gaze, fearless and without pretensions, Superstar par excellence.
Right here is Nora Aunor, all her years as artist, as woman, as pop icon, showing.
“If only we were more prepared for her. But then again, we apparently never are.”