Caparas vs Almario: Round 1

By Katrina Stuart Santiago

The truth is, it is nothing but funny, at least to me: what the f is wrong with these National Artists?

And I do mean both Carlo Caparas and Virgilio Almario, going at it on cable television, in an interview that both of them seemed unprepared for. Caparas falls back on meeting up with Almario “sa kanto,” at the same time that Almario screams in exasperation: “Sinipa rin ako sa gobyerno nung naging National Artist ako!”

I say: what a shame. To the National Artist award as an institution, and to the national discourse on culture, both. Because there was nothing intelligent or decent about that conversation, which had nothing to do with what it is that either of them are National Artists for. It has everything to do with how messed up we are about culture in this country, and how we are in over our heads most of the time.

That goes for these two National Artists, going all Round 1 on us on television.

The ghost of Gloria

The truth is, I also do not care for having (had) Caparas as National Artist; I don’t think he deserves it just yet, I do think there are other comics creators who deserve it ahead of him. And yet it is also true that the National Artist Award, as an institution, has always been put into question by the fact of presidents adding to the list of names that the NAA Jury submits to Malacañang.

Say, Fidel Ramos creating the category of Historical Literature to include Carlos Quirino in 1997, Joseph Estrada adding his friend and composer Ernani Cuenco Sr. in 2000, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo adding Alejandro Roces and Abdulmari Imao in 2006. And yes, GMA’s addition of four names to the NAA Jury’s original four: Caparas, Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, Pitoy Moreno and Francisco Mañosa in 2009.

Now it is said that the latter was utterly unacceptable because GMA also dared do what no president had done before: remove someone from the legitimate NAA Jury list, that is, Ramon Santos.

Had she not removed Santos from that list, would this case against those four additional names have been brought to court? If we are to believe National Artist for Literature Almario, the answer would be yes. Because that case was all about saving the NAA, asserting that it is an institution that no President can meddle with in the way GMA did.

Which is what way exactly? Apparently the way of adding four names unilaterally, and deciding against the list submitted to Malacañang by the NAA Jury. The Supreme Court decision in favor of Almario et al says:

“ manifest disregard of the rules, guidelines and processes of the NCCA and CCP was an arbitrary act that unduly favored respondents Guidote-Alvarez, Caparas, Mañosa and Moreno,” and as such “The conferment of the Order of National Artists to said respondents was therefore made with grave abuse of discretion and should be set aside.”?

This of course begs the question: so four additional names is grave abuse of discretion, but an additional one, or two, isn’t?

Almario would say: nilakad ‘yon eh. Which is to ask, too: so the Ramos, Erap and GMA’s 2006 additions to the NAA Jury list weren’t “nilakad”?

At the very least, I expected that the SC’s nullification of GMA’s choices would also mean that Santos – the person she removed from the legitimate NAA Jury list – can finally be given the award he so deserves. But alas, he will not join the other National Artists for 2009 – Lazaro Francisco, Federico Aguilar Alcuaz and Manuel Conde – because according to the SC, “the President had the authority to alter or modify or nullify or set aside such recommendation or advice.”

In effect, while the SC has decided against GMA’s decision to include Caparas et al in that 2009 list, they respect her decision to exclude Santos.

Which is to say this: if the goal is to prove that the NAA is about a credible jury and process that decide on who deserves to be part of this elite roster of artists, then the continued exclusion of Santos is still about the ghost of Gloria hovering over this process.

Caparas’ bark, Almario’s bite

The notion that this SC decision now rids the National Artist Award of politics and politicking is naïve at best. There is nothing apolitical about the NAA, at all. For one thing, it is a government-conferred award; for another, its process is one that’s within the cultural institutions of the State. It is imbued as such with the questionable practices of government in general, and government’s notions of culture in particular.

On an even more superficial level, the NAA is actually embroiled in this glaring inconsistency: on the one hand the laws say the NAA Jury “shall advice the President on the conferment of the Order of National Artists,” which does give the President the opportunity to refuse the advice; on the other hand, the NCCA’s published guidelines for the Order of the National Artists state that “The list of awardees shall be submitted to the President of the Republic of the Philippines for confirmation, proclamation and conferral,” which presumes that the President will merely act on the advice of the NAA Jury.

Caparas is holding on to the fact that his awarding was borne of a presidential prerogative, that he is mere recipient of an award that GMA had the right to give him; Almario insists – and the Supreme Court agrees – that this was not merely about the president’s prerogative, as it was about disregarding the process and rules of the NAA itself.

Given how they are holding onto two very different sets of rules, on that fateful morning when Caparas and Almario treated us to round one of this bout, it was clear how half the time they were shadow boxing, throwing punches in the air, not really hitting each other.

Unless of course we are to consider Caparas hitting the NAA as institution, given articulations that were in many instances en pointe, to which Almario responded without the critical backbone we would know him to have.

Say, when Caparas asks the rhetorical questions: “Ano ba ang nakahihigit? Yung prerogative ng Presidente o reklamo ng maliit na grupo? <…> “Gaano karaming National Artists ang nanggaling sa grupo nila, sa barkada nila? ‘Yan ang maling proseso, na halos lahat ng nagiging Pambansang Alagad ng Sining galing sa hanay nila.

The right response would’ve been for Almario to talk about this presidential prerogative versus the process of choosing the National Artist for any given year. The right response would’ve been to talk about patronage politics, how it can only play a part in the NAA process which Almario holds sacred, and how it might be disavowed, too, by this process of selection.

But all Almario could talk about was how the proclamation of Caparas was an act that messes with this process: “Parang binababoy nila yung buong proseso. Para bang ngayon, kung masusunod yung kanilang ginawa parang walang kwenta na yung maghirap ka sa deliberation. Pumunta ka lang sa Malacañang, maglakad doon at pwede ka nang maging National Artist. That is not honorable, I think.”

I’d throw in the question of why it might be held honorable that Santos’ exclusion by GMA be respected, but not her inclusion of Caparas etal., but that might be to rain on Almario’s parade, having won this case and all. Then again, the critique of patronage and barkadahan is a valid one for all of local culture, and it would’ve been great to hear Almario talking about how NAA deliberations are affected if not informed by it, but how institutions like this one persist and survive because these have a function because these have value.

Instead all he says is, “Mina-malign niya lahat ng National Artists dahil lang sa sa kanyang sama ng loob. Bakit di n’ya patunayan na magkakabarkada lahat kung ‘di kinuyog siya ng lehitimong artist at manunulat?”

It was clear by Almario’s tone that he was beyond all these, he was beyond this discussion and wasn’t really quite giving it the time of day, even as he agreed to be part of this very public bout. This might also be why Caparas could go on and on about how Almario was just envious of him, and how this is about who and whose works are more popular, on a national scale.

Almario dismisses these and says that the case wasn’t about Caparas’ body of work, as it was about the way in which he was given the award. And yet, in the the 2009 speech he wrote on Caparas and his assertions about popular literature, Almario asserted that the idea of writing “to entertain the masses” is the most “despicable purpose of writing <…> as filthy and as evil-smelling as the capitalist motive of profiting from anything sold.”

(“Aliwin ang masa”? Ito ang isang karima-rimarim na hangarin sa pagsulat. Kasindumi at kasimbahò ng motibong kapitalista na pagkakitahan ang anumang ibenta.”)

Isn’t Almario already drawing the line here, between popular literature and culture, and the literary and cultural establishment? Isn’t it that when Almario says there’s such a thing as “legitimate artists and writers” he is in fact also saying that there are artists like Caparas, and then there are artists like him and the other National Artists?

This kind of distancing is exactly all that Caparas needs to throw some punches that actually hit Almario, the NAA, and the cultural establishment. Because after he takes on the questions of patronage and the discrimination against popular culture, Caparas goes on to question Almario’s role as a member of government vis a vis his being National Artist, hitting at the cultural establishment’s rarely discussed dysfunction. That is, what happens to our notion of the artist – of the National Artist – when artists and cultural workers themselves become government employees that police culture, and who will have their hands tied when it comes to speaking about the more critical political issues of the day?

What is a nation when artists, declared National and otherwise, are indebted to, and colored by, the prevailing discourse of government?

Caparas says of Almario: “Tingnan mo, alagad ka ng sining naglilingkod ka sa gobyerno. Isipin mo, kung alagad ka ng sining dapat may kalayaan ka, na walang sumasakop sa iyo.”

Round 1 goes to Caparas.


  1. Wonderful report. I didn’t see the boxing match. I find it interesting that Almario is an elitist artist, believing that a creative work that appeals to the masses is inherently inartistic. Yet we look at the works of such revered writers as Charles Dickens and find that, in their time, they were extraordinarily popular, and people ran to the newspaper vendors to get the next installment of one of his novels.

  2. manuel buencamino

    Caparas says of Almario: “Tingnan mo, alagad ka ng sining naglilingkod ka sa gobyerno. Isipin mo, kung alagad ka ng sining dapat may kalayaan ka, na walang sumasakop sa iyo.”

    Hindi ba ‘yan din any ginawa ni Caparas, nag propagandist soya nung panahon ni Gloria?

    At any rate, tama ka. Shadow boxing ang nangyari. Also both men revealed na parehong pangit ang pananaw nila.

  3. BrianB

    Corrupt yung institutions talaga dito. Pinagkaiba lang ni Almario kay Caparas yung tipo ng mga allies nya. On principle pareho lang sila. Si Caparas pa-appeal sa masa, si Almario pa-appeal sa mga pakunwaring cultured.

  4. This messed up in the NA award shows how political patronage if used without moral compass as practiced by GMA has done more damage to our institution rather than elevate and uplift the cultural achievements of ordinary Filipino artists who are doing extra ordinary things in an extra ways. Yes, the current selective process is replete with questionable precedents, but the recipient NA must be intellectually honest to himself, otherwise it is a hollow honor.

  5. GabbyD

    ““Aliwin ang masa”? Ito ang isang karima-rimarim na hangarin sa pagsulat. Kasindumi at kasimbahò ng motibong kapitalista na pagkakitahan ang anumang ibenta.”)”

    where did he write this? is this available on line somewhere?

    it seems contrary to his more recent statements:

    ““Ngayon po kasi, talagang pinag-aaralan ang tinatawag na popular literature at popular arts sa cultural study.

    “Kung ang mga eksperto sa popular culture ang magsasalita, mas gusto nila halimbawa si Mars Ravelo o kaya si Francisco Kunsing o kaya si Tony Velasquez o kaya si Larry Alcala kaysa diyan kay Caparas.””

    so, in this case, he didnt denigrate pop lit at all, and implies its worthy of recognition, study.

    so, did he change his mind, or was he quoted out of context?

      • GabbyD

        i dont know. to some extent, it doesnt matter. the fact that its a worthwhile endeavor to work on pop culture is a significant departure from: “Aliwin ang masa”? Ito ang isang karima-rimarim na hangarin sa pagsulat. ”

        in fact – that statement makes no sense. if writing doesnt give people “entertainment” or whatever “aliwin” means, then what is it for? even if it isnt happy, or exciting, people will read it because they are entertained by it, no?