What is happening to the National Artist Award?

By Maricris D. Martin
Department of English and Comparative Literature, College of Arts and Letters

The National Artist Award has long been plagued by controversy. Its very origin—created in 1972 by the late President Ferdinand Marcos through Presidential Proclamation No. 1001—has been enough to make some perpetually suspicious of it, or at least raise a few expertly pencilled eyebrows.

The 2009 furor

It reached a boiling point in 2009 when then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo conferred the title to theatre artist Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, film director Carlo J. Caparas, fashion designer Pitoy Moreno, and architect Francisco Mañosa, along with three others. The Supreme Court later (three years later, to be exact) voided the awards given to these four, but not before the declaration caused a furor that has been quite unheard of—an angry throng of artists, celebrities, and regular people concerned with the arts took to the streets and expressed their vehement objection to the recipients of, quoting the NCCA website, “the highest national recognition given to Filipino individuals who have made significant contributions to the development of Philippine arts.” National Artists and UP’s own Bienvenido Lumbera and Virgilio Almario even took off their medallions, symbolically relinquishing their position as National Artists, since the 2009 awards seemed to have rendered it meaningless.

The 2014 debacle

The years following 2009 have seen varying degrees of disappointment and anger from many who have been pushing for the awarding of Fernando Poe Jr. (posthumously given in 2012), Dolphy (nominated in 2012, but did not pass the second of the three-part screening; he died in July of the same year), and most recently, Nora Aunor. Since last month’s release of this year’s list of National Artists, Aunor’s name has become even more familiar than before. And it’s because she isn’t on it.

The curious thing about it is that the boards of both the CCP and the NCCA that are in charge of evaluating nominations and submitting a joint shortlist of nominees to the Office of the President for approval claim that Aunor was definitely on the list they submitted.

In the Philippine Daily Inquirer article by TJ Burgonio and Bayani San Diego Jr. on Jun. 22, they quoted Presidential Spokesperson Sonny Coloma who said, “The President has the prerogative to approve all or none [of the National Artist Award nominees], without needing to explain.” The article also mentions that this prerogative was based on a 2013 Supreme Court ruling.

The snubbing of Ate Guy/La Aunor

Given the nomination and the prerogative, it is no longer a question of whether or not Nora Aunor was snubbed by the President. She obviously was. The question is why. Considering that no official statement has been issued to explain this decision (which again, brings us back to the President’s prerogative), many have resorted to speculations.

One speculation is that the President dropped Aunor from the list because of some alleged shady dealings in her past which involve drugs and tax evasion. On Jun. 24 in Bulatlat.com, Marya Salamat poses the idea that the President is not keen on giving Aunor such high recognition because “Nora Aunor and her most memorable films represented the opposite of what the Aquino administration stands for.” Others simply dismiss the decision as an act of elitism because of Aunor’s affinity with the masses. Unless and until this decision is properly explained, one can do little else but evaluate the merits of such speculations for oneself.

The remedy suggested by Manong Frankie

In his column Hindsight in The Philippine Star, National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose writes “a memo for President P-Noy” which calls for the “re-examination” of the National Artist Awards. While many bemoan the level of discretionary powers the President has on these matters, Jose says that this is necessary to lend the award prestige—“The prestige of the award will be diminished if it does not have the imprimatur of the highest elected official in the country. I emphasized the word ‘elected’.”

What he suggests, however, is that the President “convene the committees involved and work out a new charter (which will have the force of law).” He also suggests that there be no more posthumous awards given, and that the awards should be limited to seven categories—Music, Literature, Visual Arts, Architecture, Theater, Dance and Film.

Forty-two years after its birth, the highest award given to artists in this country seems to be getting nothing but plenty of flak instead of acquiring the regal patina that it should.


  • In 1976, President Marcos named Nick Joaquin National Artist, but the latter laid down one condition for his acceptance of the award—the release of his friend and fellow journalist Pete Lacaba. Read Ninotchka Rosca’s account of the incident here.
  • For more information on The Order of National Artists, check out the Official Gazette.

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