Thursday, April 28, 2016

Culture missing from presidentiables’ agenda

Ambeth R. Ocampo, Philippine Daily Inquirer

Drugs, corruption, traffic and crime are dragons that the presidential candidates promise to slay. Lesser monsters seem to be improvements in the economy, government, power generation, disaster preparedness, and environment. Nobody seems to have built a platform on water and culture. Water is set to be our next crisis, with taps in Metro Manila expected to run dry in a decade or two unless a timely solution can be found and implemented by the next administration. Cities need and consume a lot of water but they do not produce it, so where will it be sourced and at what price?

As to culture, it is missing from the agenda of the presidentiables. So when I hear friends in the arts rant about culture being a low priority of the government, I bite my lip to keep from declaring that culture is not a priority, and is not even on the agenda!

We are happy that President Aquino found the time to confer the National Artist awards a few months short of his departure from Malacañang. One batch of National Artists was merged with another due to the controversy over additions or “dagdag” to the laureates who were not even on the shortlist of nominees. I have always maintained that a president is not a rubber stamp, and that the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which whittle a long list of nominees and wannabes into a shortlist, must accept that they make recommendations that a president can choose to accept or ignore. A president has the discretion to remove a name from the shortlist but should not add to the list, so Nora Aunor has to wait for another round of screening and a future president who sees fit to elevate her to the Order of National Artists.

Contrary to popular belief, there have been two conferments of National Artist awards under the Aquino administration. That of Fernando Poe Jr. was quietly conferred by President Aquino in 2012. FPJ was posthumously elevated to the Order of National Artist in 2007, but his widow refused to receive the honor from then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who, she maintains, had stolen the presidency from her husband. The 2007 proclamation was not signed and the award was not conferred, yet FPJ remained in the roster of National Artists. To regularize the situation, President Aquino conferred the award posthumously in 2012.

Another bright spot for culture is the long overdue establishment of the Cultural Diplomacy Unit in our Department of Foreign Affairs, which had been attached to the Office of the Undersecretary for International Economic Relations! It is a first step in institutionalizing the use of culture in our public diplomacy.

One just has to look around Manila to see how culture is utilized by other governments as part of their public diplomacy or “soft power.” Some high-profile examples are: the French Alliance Francaise, the Spanish Instituto Cervantes, the German Goethe Institut, the Chinese Confucius Institute, the Japan Foundation, and the British Council. The Philippines is not far behind with Sentro Rizal established in a number of our embassies abroad to promote Philippine culture.

With the proper funding, our DFA Cultural Diplomacy Unit can establish an Art in Embassies program like that recently presented by the US Embassy in Manila. Over the years I have been invited to the residences of the French and Spanish ambassadors in Forbes Park and have seen how each new ambassador redecorates the home with art and antiques sent from their home base. Some works were loaned from state museums, so that visitors need not fly to Paris or Madrid to see them. When the French, Spanish and Japanese ambassadors entertain at home without the services of hotel catering, the best in dinnerware and flatware from their countries can be enjoyed.

US Ambassador Philip Goldberg hosted a reception at his residence in Forbes Park this week for an Art in Embassies exhibition that brought to Manila works that connected our countries. Previous ambassadors brought American art that is part of a global visual arts program run by the US Department of State Office of Art in embassies since 1963. These works of art, chosen in consultation with the ambassador, “allow foreign citizens, many of whom might never travel to the US to personally experience the depth and breadth of our artistic heritage and values… making what has been called a ‘footprint that can be left where people have no opportunity to see American art.’”

Of the works on display, I liked those of Leo Abaya most because these were rooted in our history. “This can happen elsewhere” (2004) is an image drawn from the late-16th-century Boxer Codex installed directly on the wall in one of the rooms of the embassy. It shows a man decorated in gold like a Christmas tree, which should make our generation ask, If our 16th-century ancestors were so rich, why are we so poor today? “Negotiating space” (2005) uses an image of a smiling enemy soldier during the Filipino-American War. Then there is a portrait of Rizal by Jeff Huntington that needs little or no explanation.

I left the US Embassy hoping that the next administration will provide a budget for a similar program where Philippine Embassies abroad can provide foreigners a chance to know and experience our art and culture as a means of public diplomacy.

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