National Artists and artists

I can’t blame the President for his final opinion of Nora Aunor as a National Artist. It is his regard of her (confusing nonetheless because it’s more befitting a Conservative than one espousing Liberal ideals).

However, everybody who has ever received opinions of themselves from others know for a fact that these opinions are rarely the whole truth and often are entirely false. It’s because no one could ever have complete knowledge of another. The human being – the soul, heart, and mind – is always in flux. Who was it who said man and woman, while living, is potential, a process? Individuals themselves take a lifetime understanding themselves! Married couples, even after 50 or so years together, though they might have possessed each other physically, cannot say the same of their knowledge of the other’s mind.

But beyond the debate over opinions of Nora Aunor’s deserveability, the emerging lessons out of this National Artist nomination brouhaha have to do with (1) the agency of decision as to who are National Artists, and (2) the understanding of creativity and creative genius.

The NCCA Selection Process states that it is the joint boards of the NCCA and CCP who make the final selection, but it is the President of the Philippines who shall confirm, proclaim, and confer the title. In short, it is the President of the Philippines who has the final say in the recipients. What are the implications of this final stage of the process? One individual deciding means the choice is colored by that individual’s views or opinions, correct or not, above and beyond what’s on the briefing papers from the joint boards. The President deciding means the choice is colored by the methods of his Office. The concern here therefore is, perhaps a superior system could be put up wherein individual biases are dissipated to make way for an apolitical and balanced regard of the nominees?

We can look to the process in selecting the Nobel Peace Prize laureates: “the Nobel Committee chooses the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates through a majority vote” and “the decision is final and without appeal”.

Another is the selection process for the Oscars awardees.

Final ballots are mailed to voting members…and are due back to PricewaterhouseCoopers…for final tabulation. After final ballots are tabulated, only two partners of PricewaterhouseCoopers know the results until the…envelopes are opened onstage during the Academy Awards presentation.

As to what a National Artist is, the title, in my view, is award for the politically-correct behavior of an artist, and further assurance that the behavior will continue in the long term. National Artist isn’t necessarily Creative Genius. Who was the politically-correct person and at the same the creative genius? Great works of art did not come out of “normal” behavior nor from straight and narrow paths. On the contrary, eccentricity and at times madness precipitate artistic genius and greatness. The creative geniuses – Mozart, Michelangelo, Hemmingway – were not National Artists. Their countries did not attempt to place them on that pedestal. Their names and body of work are enough.

The selection process at best sterilizes and filters artistic genius in order to satisfy the concept that ordinary minds, the majority, have of the personality. At worse, because the jury is comprised mostly of individuals who are not themselves creative geniuses hence cannot understand what and how it is, the process mocks genius itself. Politicians, because this is so far off their field of study, experience, and personality, are not the right persons to be judges of it.

The creative genius is not a national role model. God forbid. That, I believe, is the last thing creative geniuses want. Michelangelo did not create in the hope that he’d become a role model in his country. In fact, during his time, his nude creations were the scandal of Catholic Rome! The earth could burn up in scandal for all he care but his art to him was the be-all and end-all.  National role models or heroes (as they’re called here) and creative geniuses are not members of the same class though I’d say each admires the other. Both are courageous – they’re willing to break with tradition – but manifest it in different ways and for different reasons. Take for example, the courage of Anne Curtis on the concert stage, it’s poles apart from the courage of say Rizal, yet it’s courage just the same.  I don’t think Anne Curtis’ clothes and moves on stage were so in the hope she’d be arrested and shot at Bagumbayan and posthumously receive a medal for heroic deed. They’re rather the creative expression of her art. Unlike Rizal whose works were the means toward liberation, personal and national, Anne’s artistic expression, like Michelangelo’s with his art, is both the means and the end, liberation itself.

Alain de Botton in his book How Proust Can Change Your Life has something about what a successful work of art is.  He quotes Proust:

Our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undo this work of theirs, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us.

Or, as summed up by de Botton:

An ability to restore to our sight a distorted or neglected aspect of reality.

To the conscious mind, the way of the artist can be quite scandalous but then as Proust says the scandalous “exists unknown within us”, just as how Adam and Eve regarded their nakedness prior to eating the forbidden fruit: normal (which is how we’ll go in death, by the way. We’re then finally stripped of all our “vanity, spirit of imitation” and go forth naked which is our true state).  Notably, Proust’ daily habits is said to include waking up extremely early in the morning, taking opium (perhaps to alleviate his lifelong debilitations. This is to say we need to distinguish between drug use and drug abuse – discussing these two is akin to the pro- and anti-gun debate), before taking coffee and croissant.

It’s absurd then to define Nora Aunor, the artist, using the criteria applicable to a national role model or hero. Fans and patrons are welcome to elevate artists as role models but that’s not what artists are for primarily.

In any case, Nora Aunor is not the first artist to be disappointed. All the great artists of the past were not recognized during their lifetime. The works of great painters then did not fetch the equivalent of their market price now.  Consequently, many lived and died paupers. But the most important thing to them was they lived to create what they did. They were convinced of their ability when no one else was (imagine the consequence for the art world and lovers of art now if Van Gogh lost his belief in himself the first time his work was snubbed!). Disappointments served to strengthen their resolve and motivate them further to create. Dogged belief and persistence in what they do are what great artists and national heroes have in common.

Pain and sorrow were the “perfect preconditions” to the creation of great works of art. Perhaps it is this that the art rather than the artist takes center stage, otherwise if the artist was we won’t be seeing beauty but rather pain, sorrow, angst, physical frailty, misery, loneliness, angst, oddness, madness.

Sickness, insanity and death were the angels that surrounded my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life.

[My troubles] are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and it [treatment] would destroy my art. I want to keep those sufferings.

– Edvard Munch

That suffering did not hinder, on the contrary, facilitated, creation of their magnum opus which speaks and calls to audiences and viewers, across time, at a deep and visceral level is what makes them great artists.

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