Prevent the posthumous: Why recognizing Filipino artists postmortem must stop

Does it really take as much as death to recognize the visionaries of the Philippine arts, when this was long overdue even before their lives ended—lives which they have fully dedicated to bringing out the best from their respective fields?

An unfortunate set accident took the life of veteran actor and director Eddie Garcia last June 20, 2019. The 90-year-old “Manoy”, as he was fondly called, was set to star in Rosang Agimat, his supposed comeback show in television network GMA. During his wake, countless friends from the industry shared their personal experiences with the actor’s on and off-screen brilliance, with political and entertainment personalities calling for him to be honored as a Philippine National Artist. Fellow actor and Senator Lito Lapid even expressed admiration towards his versatility as an artist, saying “hindi lahat ng artista ay magagawa [na] pwedeng magkontra-bida, pwedeng magbida, …ano ang labas niya at kahit ano, kahit mahirap, matanda. (not all artists are too versatile to play an antagonist, a protagonist, …a diversified character albeit challenging.)

Despite the overflow of compliments adhering to the initiative, some also expressed their dismay as to why this was not even considered during his lifetime. Among them is another industry colleague, Christopher de Leon. “Ba’t di niyo binigay nung buhay pa siya? ‘Di ba? (Why didn’t you give it when he was still alive? Right?) He could have appreciated that when he was still alive, and now he’s up there… beyond,he explains.

Being selected as a National Artist is not a piece of cake. Primarily, a thorough selection among filed nominations is conducted by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). It is only after this time that the recommendations will be forwarded to the incumbent President, who shall then confer the rank and title of National Artist through a Presidential Proclamation acclaiming the remarkable individuals in the fields of Architecture or Allied Arts, Film and Broadcast Arts, Visual Arts, Theater, Dance, Music and Literature.

There is more than just the Grand Collar that makes this a significant recognition. What makes the citation more striking are the lavish privileges that go with it, which includes a lifetime entitlement to a regular salary, life pension and medical insurance tantamount to what the highest officials in the country receive. Furthermore, a tax-free cash award of 100,000 Pesos is given to living recipients, and 75,000 Pesos for the posthumous awardees, to be received by their legal heirs. The awardees are also reserved a place of honor for official state functions. Upon death, the National Artists will also be rendered a state funeral and a dispensation to be buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery).

“Dead people receive more flowers than the living ones because regret is stronger than gratitude.” — Anne Frank.

The luster of this honor had its fair share of being the center of controversy. In 2009, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo proclaimed architect Francisco Mañosa, fashion designer Jose Moreno, filmmaker Carlo J. Caparas and theater artist Cecile Guidote-Alvarez as National Artists. Former awardees and critics alike have collectively questioned the conferment roster as the four are not even part of the shortlist submitted by NCCA and CCP. A more critical emphasis on the nominations of Caparas and Guidote-Alvarez surfaced, citing their affiliations with Arroyo as an enabler of such “presidential insertions”. Ultimately, the Supreme Court voided the recognition of these recipients.

Inquirer columnist Rudy L. Coronel raised an argument during the conferment led by former President Noynoy Aquino in 2016, when nine awards were given but only three of the recipients are still alive. He reiterates how posthumous awards are inevitable but somewhat intriguing, citing the likes of filmmaker-actor Manuel Conde and comic book writer-illustrator Francisco Coching—both whom received their National Artist awards a few decades after they have passed away. Coronel calls out how the state seems to be saving up with the emoluments that could have not been given posthumously, which might just lead to the trivialization of an honor as high as this.

Reiterating this ambiguity cannot be any more relevant. These artists have already given so much in their lifetime that heaven can wait giving their own recognition. It might be heartwarming for the bereaved, but it seems to be but a pointless gesture to offer this pleasure without the recipient even being able to savor that moment. Voicing delayed gratitude towards the remarkable people who are already gone only makes regret the standard tone of gratefulness, and tardiness the standard of genuineness.

If the well-lived life of Manoy is a case not valid enough to justify recognizing such legends while they are still alive, how much more departures of visionaries shall be anticipated?

First version written June 27, 2019
Revised July 25, 2020

This article, originally titled “Preventing the posthumous: Why we should stop recognizing artists postmortem”, has been edited for more diverse audiences.

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