The Tension in Taste

Filipinos are obsessed with feasts and burials. Both are supposedly solemn and unifying, but when degrees of politicization are introduced, hostility ensues.

Such was the case when Her Excellency Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was struck by two consecutive controversies this month which she received much criticism for: five figure dinners in New York and Washington, and the said death of the National Artist Award. Both were regarded by the public as scandalous.

These two issues managed to override our attentions from the month-long memorial of democracy icons Corazon and Ninoy Aquino. A mourning nation’s attention was diverted by its outrage over the off gestures the president made involving these. Accusations and defenses where thrown back and forth from one camp to the other, prolonging the agony over what seemed to some as mundane matters.

And such is the case with taste. We often so disregard it and take it for granted, but it is in this sense that these two scandals were anchored. Of course the meaning of “taste” is different for both issues, but when politics gets involved, as we can see, things can get very, very sour.

It was around the second week of August when news spread that GMA and her 25 person entourage spent roughly $20,000 (over a million pesos) for a dinner at the posh Le Cirque in New York. The public and critical uproar were past the scales. So when The Washington Post publicized a tip that the president and 65 other local delegates spent $15,000 earlier at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse in Washington, all hell broke loose.

When the supposedly private gathering had gone public, criticism came after criticism. It didn’t help the already negatively-rated president and her friends in power when the stance they took was defensive and evasive. Press Secretary Cerge Remonde could hardly hide his frustration as he kept repeating that no public funds were used, that the meals were simple, and later on, the meals were simple for someone of a caliber such as the President.

The official expenditure was released much later, already after the media were accused of being bitter (no pun intended) and therefore MalacaƱang (via election lawyer Romy Macalintal) started accusing them of sensationalism. Then, AKBAYAN partylisters Walden Bello and Riza Hontiveros filed cases of indirect bribery and misconduct to the Ombudsman. Questions that needed answering, however, just seemed to pile up instead of being resolved.

The publicizing of said dinners (and the consequent negative public response) almost immediately followed another publicly disputed issue involving the president. Artists, academics and the common folk were baffled by GMA’s bestowing of the National Artist Award to four people who did not undergo the official screening processes set by the National Center for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) just the week before Filipinos became aware of the dinners abroad. Being a political figure, art experts argued that GMA was not in the position to evaluate the very highly regarded recognition, but only had authority to confirm an official body’s recommendation.

On August 7, artists and their supporters rallied in front of the CCP complex, paying a necrological service to the National Artist Award. The recognition, they claim, died after the processes for selection were bypassed with the declaration of Carlo Caparas, Pitoy Moreno, Francisco Manosa and Cecile Guidote-Alvarez as national artists (the last of which was an NCCA board member.)

Supporters of the president would defend her by saying that she is everyone’s persona non grata: always condemned to be wrong. GMA is criticized for entertaining luxurious invites and also for judging something she did not have the expertise to apply any discretion to. When Aristotle’s measurements are used, critics would say that the president is guilty both of the vices of excess and deficiency. In these two cases, criticisms would be applied to her taste.

So, is this a question of taste? Of virtue? Or of ethics?

Let the cases be presented. When GMA dines abroad, it is not at all surprising that the tab will soar to five foreign figures if she has a horde of delegates with her. But whether she deserves a posh or pedestrian meal because of what taste we expect a president should have is, it is still a fact that she is a president of a hungry and impoverished people. Detractors would claim that the gesture makes GMA and her people’s situations more discrepant, it’s almost unethical.

When a president is expected to be educated and culturally eloquent enough to know what is high art from lowbrow, pop art, then it is not very surprising either that she is granted confirmatory powers as to who should be declared National Artist or not. But when the president disregards the official processes of those recognized to be in the position to screen candidates for the award, negative reactions will surely arise. The art community would accuse the president of disrespecting not just the tediousness of the process but basic codes of conduct of well-established institutions.

Do all these mean that the president has no taste? No. And if that is what is to be resolved then the debate is trivial. As we can see, the tension in taste lies not in vice, but in breaching obvious ethical foundations which we expect a president, of all people, to be standing firm on.

Article by: Marie Julienne Ente