THE National Artist Award was created to honor our nation’s artistic geniuses. It was established in accordance with Presidential Proclamation 1001 dated April 27, 1972. The rank and title of National Artist is conferred on Filipino citizens who have, through the arts, helped define our national identity.
I have been fortunate enough to know or have known some of these great Filipinos, up close, personal and without filters.
There was the National Artist F. Sionil Jose, feisty and unwavering, forever ready to write about the ills of our society and our national misconceptions. A survivor of the Second World War, his DNA must have been programmed at birth to fight to the bitter end. He died with his wits still as sharp as a Saracen’s blade.
There was Federico Aguilar Alcuaz whose artworks are breathlessly and incredibly beautiful. Each work is a superlative masterpiece. His choice of colors could eclipse a rainbow. Touch a canvas of Alcuaz and feel the colors with the tip of your fingers.
There was Nick Joaquin whose works will live even after his bones have turned into dust. He roamed the streets of Manila in three dimensions: The Manila of the Spanish Empire, the Manila of the then present and the Manila of his own. Each time I saw him, I would ask in which dimension he was in, he only smiled at me with sad eyes.
There was Bienvenido Lumbera. Read the poems of Lumbera in crescendo, like a Beethoven symphony and you will hear the sound of the Filipino.
There was Francisco Mañosa, our National Artist for Architecture; his designs are truly unique, open and spacious, as if he predicted the coming pandemic. Kindhearted to a fault, I ran to him when the house I was constructing was not at par and he gave me engineers and builders, planners and technical advisors. As a result, my home looks like an ordinary house from the outside, but inside it is assuredly a Mañosa. He was a great genius in design and engineering, in the use of post and lintel.
There is the National Artist Resil Mojares, the Titan of Visayan Letters as he is called. Quiet and seemingly forever lost in thought, he always tries to figure out the past algorithms of our people’s existence.
There are other great artists who deserve to be honored by our nation and who have passed away, but the body of work they have left behind speaks for themselves.
How potential National Artists are vetted and the limitations of presidential power in their selection are set forth in the case of Almario v. Executive Secretary, G.R. 189028, July 16, 2013.
In the Almario case, the Supreme Court outlined the various stages of deliberations in the selection process. It was held that since the vetting process is defined by law, the selection of the President on who should be the National Artists should be limited to the names submitted to him by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Boards. If a person’s name does not appear in the short list submitted, then that person may not be considered as a potential awardee. This is because the power to deliberate in the choices for National Artists is granted to the NCCA and the CCP Boards by Presidential Decree 208 and Republic Act 7356. Thus, presidential discretion should be in accord with the Chief Executive’s duty to faithfully execute all laws. It is an obligation dictated by Section 17, Article VII of the Constitution. The selection and screening process therefore should be observed, even by the President, to guarantee that we will have the National Artists that we deserve.
“Discretion,” according to Almario “is not a free-spirited stallion that runs and roams wherever it pleases but is reined in to keep it from straying. In its classic formulation, discretion is not unconfined and vagrant but canalized within banks that keep it from overflowing.”
In fine, there must be a list of names that should be provided to the President so that he can exercise his mandated prerogative of choosing our National Artists. To my mind, there should at least be a trinity — three persons whose names must be submitted for each category so that the President may effectively exercise his executive discretion. That brings me now to the latest news that I have received from people who know about these things. I have been informed that for this three-year cycle, a National Artist for Visual Arts has not been nominated. Fortunately, I have no other evidence except the words that I have heard. If it’s true, it means that there should be an explanation for the sudden reversal of circumstances, certainly, not through judicial adjudication or court warrant or “gentlemen lawyers” like me, because one Supreme Court decision involving an award is definitely one case too many.