Measure for measure

Nora Aunor poses with her trophy after winning the Best Actress Award of her movie “Thy Womb” at the Asian Film Awards as part of the 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival in Hong Kong.  (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)


Better luck next round.

Automatically re-nominated for National Artist honors, actress Nora Aunor was again dropped from the list of new National Artists who were honored by President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday.

The 2018 batch of National Artists are: Francisco Mañosa (architecture), Eric de Guia, also known as “Kidlat Tahimik” (film), Ramon Muzones and Resil Mojares (literature), Ryan Cayabyab (music), Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio (theater) and Lauro “Larry” Alcala (visual arts).

Aunor had been excluded from that elite list in 2014 by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III after she pleaded guilty to charges that she used illegal drugs in the United States. Aquino opined that National Artists should also be good role models.

Despite his very vocal and very strong anti-narcotics stand, Duterte made no statements about why Aunor was excluded from the 2018 list of National Artists. She just was, and mum’s the word on that.

Aunor will be automatically re-nominated in 2020, when the next batch of National Artists will be chosen. That’s how the system works.


Let’s review the criteria of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), which, along with the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), is tasked with ensuring that the guidelines by which a Filipino is deemed and named National Artist are followed.

National Artists must be: “Living artists who are Filipino citizens at the time of nomination, as well as those who died after the establishment of the award in 1972 but were Filipino citizens at the time of their death.”

They must also “through the content and form of their works, have contributed in building a Filipino sense of nationhood.” They must have “pioneered in a mode of creative expression or style, thus earning distinction and making an impact on succeeding generations of artists.”

Nominees for the National Artist honors must also “have created a substantial and significant body of work and/or consistently displayed excellence in the practice of their art form.”

If you count these criteria, Aunor makes the grade. Best known for her work on the silver screen, Aunor has also acted onstage and on the small screen in a career spanning just about four and a half decades. She has displayed her virtuosity as a thespian these genres of acting that have earned her a cult following of “Noranians” that is still a very formidable fan base, decades later.

If you look at the criterion of enjoying “broad acceptance” through “prestigious national and international recognition,” Aunor has these in spades. She was one of the 100 Outstanding Filipinos honored in the 1999 Centennial Honors for the Arts for her contributions to building the nation through Arts and Culture. She received the 2015 Gawad CCP para sa Sining for Film and Broadcast Arts.

But, wait, there’s more: Aunor was conferred the NCCA’s Ani ng Dangal award in 2013, 2014 and 2016, for having brought honor to the country by winning in international film festivals.

That brings us to the criterion where the nominee must have “broad acceptance” through “prestigious national and/or international recognition, such as the Gawad CCP Para sa Sining, CCP Thirteen Artists Award and NCCA Alab ng Haraya,” and “critical acclaim and/or reviews of their works.”

By the official measure given by the agencies that define the rules for naming a National Artist, Aunor does more than pass. She excels. If things were as they should be and these criteria alone were the basis for proclaiming Nora Aunor a National Artist, then she more than meets the measure.

Yet she is still not a National Artist—despite her genius, her talent and an award-winning body of work that speaks volumes of just how good a thespian she is and about how much she has given both her craft and her nation.

None of these criteria speak of a nominee’s character, moral uprightness or how that nominee serves as a role model. The criteria speak solely of the artistry, artistic achievements, and recognition—local and global—of the nominees. Nope, no “role model” requirements here.

Consistent moral uprightness is not one of the criteria by which a person is deemed worthy of being conferred National Artist status. When we talk of morals, by what measure is a person considered moral? Because morality is a fluid thing that varies from generation to generation and from community to community. This is, quite possibly, why morals are not part of the process for determining how good an artist one is.

Artists experience life, imperfect as life often is, in order to create their art. Life is not all neat rows and role-model constraint. Sometimes it is dark and frightening, or morally questionable, or unbelievably hard to live.

Many great works of art come from the dark periods of artists’ lives: Vincent Van Gough is acknowledged as a masterof painting, and his works are well known worldwide, and have been for centuries—about just as well known is the fact the Van Gough was a tortured soul who cut off his own ear.

The works of National Hero Jose Rizal were not pretty little stories that told of how well the Spaniard and Indio got along. They were works full of anger and grief over the Spaniards’ treatment of the Indios they’d colonized—and full of sarcastic caricatures of the Indios who allowed themselves to be subjugated by their colonizers. The “Noli Me Tangere” and the “El Filibusterismo” got our Rizal shot in Bagumbayan field because they offended the sensibilities of the colonial government. Yet Rizal is a National Hero, the pathos, anger and ugliness depicted in his work notwithstanding. That, too, was art taken from life.

Sometimes it is the intensity of emotional pathos that brings out the best work of an artist. This is why dramas are a popular and enduring genre of the stage and screen where La Aunor, and other National Artists for Film and Theater, perform.

The human condition from which art is drawn isn’t always about being a good role model. Sometimes it is about surviving the dark times, flaws and all, long enough to make it back to the light. Sometimes it is all about getting through the night alive.

To become a National Artist, one must first be an artist—and life’s experiences, including the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and those things that make humans human, including human frailties and failings, are part of being an artist.


In Proclamation No. 1001 Declaring Fernando Amorsolo first National Artist and creating the Order of National Artistspenned and signed on April 27, 1972 by then President Ferdinand E. Marcos, Marcos said “art is the expression of the national genius.” He did not say it is an expression of national morals.

In that proclamation, he also wrote “artists should be given the appropriate honors for their contribution to the heritage of our society.” According to the proclamation, “it is necessary that we create a category to be known as National Artist which will be the national expression of gratitude and appreciation.”

Well, as much as the people definitely appreciate Nora Aunor (tickets to her movies sell very well indeed and have done so for decades), the government isn’t giving her any national expressions of gratitude and appreciation yet.

In Proclamation 144 penned and signed by Marcos on May 15 1973 naming Francisca Reyes Aquino. Carlos V. Francisco, Amado V. Hernandez, Antonio J. Molina, Juan F. Nakpil, Guillermo E. Tolentino and Jose Garcia Villa as National Artists that year, Marcos also wrote that “it is only fitting that the Government of the Philippines, pursuing a policy of preserving Filipino culture and national identity, give due recognition to the contribution of these persons in the field of arts and letters.”

This proclamation amended Proclamation No. 1001 and created the National Artists Award Committee to administer the conferment of the category of National Artist “upon those deserving thereof” and initially defining the members of the committee as the Board of Trustees of the CCP.

Enter politics. At the end of the day, the National Artist honors are a Presidential award—and it is the President of the Republic of the Philippines who has the final say in who receives the conferment or not.

Advised by the best advisers on the arts in government, the President decides whether someone becomes a National Artist or not. That’s right: A politician whose career is NOT in art makes choices that should rightfully be based on artistic merit and the criteria of the NCCA, and not on politics, morality, or the cult of personality.

That Nora Aunor is not yet a National Artist tells us just how little our last two Presidents know of art and of what makes or does not make a National Artist. G



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