Politics and Art
I like paintings, literature and art pieces. I also make it a point to catch some performances at the CCP and elsewhere whenever I can. One of my fantasies is living in a huge house where the walls are abloom with the works of Manansala, Luz, Ang Kiukok, Bencab, Malang, Joya, even Badon, Baldemor and Velasco and where a Lluch, an Orlina, or an Abueva piece sits serenely in a side table or two (cut me some slack, it's a fantasy for crying out loud). I do spend a great amount on books (fortunately, they are relatively more affordable and within my means).
This year, they picked Bencab and Bien Lumbera, among others (I already wrote about FPJ's selection and the unfortunate fracas that surrounded the selection and announcement). I am aware that selecting who gets into the illustrious list is a contentious process. I can understand that. There are many artists who deserve the title and I imagine that they serve Advil and antacids as a side dish during the annual deliberations. Like most Filipinos, I also have my own opinions and my own biases.
Personally, I feel a stronger emotional connection with Malang's works over those of Bencab's. But I respect other people's opinions and salute the selection of Bencab. (Irrelevant aside: I had one close encounter with Bencab. I was running a program in Baguio a few years back and obliged my hosts when they brought me to this charming village on the side of a mountain - which I had already been to twice before that occasion- and which features several authentic Ifugao houses. On that particular day, Bencab was there working unobtrusively with the local painters. We chatted for a few minutes and I came out of it with great admiration for the man).
I really do not know the man although I am a little familiar with his work. I have seen the Bench billboards and the newspaper ads which features Bencab with Alessandra de Rossi and others. I have, on occasion, seen his countenance in the lifestyle sections of newspaper hobnobbing with the rich and famous. I do not know that these reduce his worth as an artist. But this is what I know: Bencab is a great artist. I may not think he is the greatest or that he is better or more worthy than others, but that does not detract from the fact that he deserves the title in his own right.
This is why I am taken aback by the rather fierce and brutal reaction from some quarters over his proclamation as a National Artist. I can understand when people express misgivings and reservations. I can even empathize when someone wishes that someone else was chosen instead. Art is subjective, it does not affect people the same way.
But what I do not understand is why anyone would actually denigrate someone else's worth on the basis of a subjective yardstick that seemed crafted primarily for the purpose of wrecking Bencab's persona rather than his works. Maybe I am simply naive, but it smacks of a demolition job better suited for a political exercise.
The criticism makes a big case of Bencab's commercial image ("he carved a significant niche in the market by sheer luck and gimmickry," "he elevated himself to the level of celebrity by posing with the right people at the right time...including rock stars and actresses like Alessandra de Rossi"). The rant is disturbing because it betrays contempt for rock stars and actresses (I am no fan of Alessandra de Rossi, but this is an actress with a regional reputation as a sensitive performer and someone who has made a distinction for taking on artistic projects) and a disdain for market players. What is so wrong with being a commercial success and for having marketing savvy? Should all artists fit the romantic picture of a starving penniless pauper who has to cut off his ear and deform himself for the sake of art?
The criticism is disturbing primarily because it borders on plain and unadultered sourgraping. It makes a big case out of the fact that many other artists are deserving of the award. But what kind of logical deduction is it that says the selection of Bencab, or anyone else for that matter for any award or position, automatically negates the value and worth of others considered for the award? Why should it be concluded that because Bencab (or Bien Lumbera for that matter) was chosen this year, the qualifications of Malang (or the great poet Cirilo Bautista) has been reduced and disregarded? Why should we pit artists against each other like boxers demolishing each other for a world title?
The yardstick that is being trundled out to question Bencab's proclamation is so self-serving even Juan Luna, Jose Rizal, and Botong Francisco will probably not qualify. To top it all, the really vexatious question "Who is Bencab?" is actually asked.
I truly wish that one day we can all learn to disagree without pouring acid on each other. I pray that someday art can be spared from all these political acrimony.