• Notes on an arts and culture agenda


    One of the reasons I became hopeful about having President Duterte as our country’s leader was the fact that I’ve heard him speak consistently about better treatment for workers via such measures as an end to endo, tax reform and the streamlining of government services, as well as his stance on making oligarchs and capitalists also responsible for treating workers better.

    I knew this would redound to the benefit of cultural workers as well.

    The President’s ear
    But the President is listening to a chosen few as far as culture is concerned. And while all Presidents must be like that, too – after all, he has to depend on advisers in order to make decisions – it’s also very clear, given the appointees to cultural positions so far, that the decisions being made do not go through sectoral consultations and are not grounded on the state of the sector to begin with.

    It is clear that the President is not basing his decisions on the capacity of appointees to do work as mandated in the law, such as the case of Liza Diño at the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP). He’s also making decisions without a sense of what the sector needs, and where it stands given the history of cultural work of certain personalities, i.e., Nick Lizaso at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). Let’s not even talk about the amount of independence that our cultural institutions are given under the law, which these presidential appointments ignore.

    It seems we need to be reminded that unlike other cabinet positions, these appointments to cultural institutions require a sense of what’s happening to an already divided sector, as it does a sense of the few personalities and officials who have the credentials and credibility, experience and expertise, to at least not be dismissed – or be treated like a puppet – by the powers-that-be.

    And the powers-that-be do exist in the cultural sector. And appointing unqualified individuals to cultural positions does not change that power structure one bit. In fact, it just messes with the possibility of a shift in those who hold power, when there is a pretty clear line of succession to these leadership positions, and those keep us hopeful about the independence of these cultural institutions.

    But appointments like Diño’s mess this up, bypassing as it does the cultural workers who have the credentials and credibility for the FDCP post after Briccio Santos: say, Leo Martinez, or Carlos Siguion Reyna.

    A question of representation
    This is the risk of having people in the President’s ear who do not know the sector they are talking about, the institutions in place, and the functions of each office, each subcommission, each division. So far, all of Diño’s plans tell me that she is more fit for the CCP’s Film, Broadcast and New Media Division, or the NCCA’s National Committee on Cinema. For whatever reason, the FDCP leadership is what she wants, never mind that she is not qualified for it – not by a long shot.

    One hopes that there is more humility in the other group that seems to have the President’s ear as far as culture is concerned, and these are the convenors of what is being called an Arts and Culture Summit that will deliver an agenda to the President.

    It is unclear as of this writing how this started. What is clear is that the individual committees for each sector are headed by established artist organizations. As any cultural worker would know, this is absolutely problematic.

    Case in point: I hear that it is the Unyon ng Manunulat ng Pilipinas (UMPIL) and the Philippine PEN that are creating the agenda for writers. A cursory look at the number of active members of those two organizations, and a look at what generation of writers a majority of them belong to, would reveal that neither of these organizations actually represents even a majority of the writers.

    And no, telling me that it is Rio Alma, aka National Artist Virgilio Almario, speaking for writers doesn’t make me feel any better. All that tells me is that this agenda will have nothing on patronage politics and politicking, nothing on writers’ rights, nothing on the crises of better pay, copyright, and oppressive BIR policies for freelance writers, and certainly nothing on a writers’ union.

    Having someone so high up in the literary establishment speaking for all writers, is a misstep that just further disregards marginalized writers, and silences the already disenfranchised.

    Feet on the ground
    And Philstage representing performance artists? That’s just absurd. Philstage defines itself as an “organization of professional performing arts companies.” It is not an organization that represents dancers or theater workers, so how can it even be part of a group that’s forming an agenda for theater and dance, which one imagines is about representing the cultural workers who keep these sectors alive?

    Unless, of course, they really did mean an agenda for theater and dance companies, and in which case this is another glaring mistake as far as building an arts and culture agenda is concerned. Obviously, this group has no sense that the oppression of the cultural worker happens within these companies, too: from the little pay they get to the lack of benefits, from contracts that put so little value on the work of our playwrights, directors, librettists, composers, to the lack of power these cultural workers have to negotiate for royalties based on production cost, sponsorships and ticket sales.

    Without a sense of what cultural workers need in general, and the specific crises that workers in each sector face; without a sense of the power structure within the sectors of culture, and grounding in what already exists so that we know what might be missing, it is unclear how this arts and culture agenda will even represent a fourth of the cultural sector at this point.

    Without an effort at inclusivity, this agenda will do nothing but further strengthen the feudal relations and patronage politics that exist within the cultural sector. And in that case, it will do nothing for culture workers, and ultimately stand against the promises made by the President himself.

    There has got to be a better way.


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