Friday, August 14, 2009

Science,art and politics: There is more to the national artist and scientist fiasco

Professor Flor Lacanilao has thrown in his bit on the national artists fiasco. He writes in a post for a Pinoy scientist blog

"The naming of National Artists and National Scientists in the Philippines has been continually threatened or beset with fake artists and scientists. Quite surprisingly, however, our respected artists and scientists have different attitudes to the selection process that dishonors art and science. Whereas the artists have always strongly opposed such farce, the scientists have been silent all these years."

The good professor has in many blogs written about the politics in the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). The NAST recommends who will be given the national scientist title. The perks for national scientists are comparable to that received by national artists. The final perk is a plot at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

Prof. Lacanilao's beef with NAST is that the selection process according to him, hardly ever has research performance and credibility as criteria, but age! The wags have a field day and NAST has to shed off the waggish meaning of its acronym, "National Academy of Senile Teachers"! BTW the wag who told me of this meaning is herself a NAST member and could be a national scientist one day.

Nonetheless to answer Prof. Lacanilao's concerns, we may have to brush up on our history. Throughout the ages and to the present, artists and scientists needed wealthy patrons. In a more democratic milieu, the state took over the role. Scientists on the other hand became more professionalized but still needed patrons. Today the science bureaucracy and big business are the patrons and no longer some eccentric lord or duke.

In Nazi Germany, der Fuhrer was the patron of German science and art. There was no room for degenerate science and art. Aryan art and science was in. If you are out, then you are in Dachau or the furnace at Auschwitz!

A few forgettable artists benefited from the Hitler regime. We don't remember their names except for Albert Speer, who we remember as Hitler's so so architect and the top Nazi who escaped the Nuremberg noose (He also was tasked to manage the Nazi atom bomb project as armaments minister). Speer served his 20 years and history calls him the "good Nazi". None of Speer's work survived the war save for a row of lamposts in Berlin.

Most artists went into the concentration camp or up the chimney in Auschwitz. The few who were lucky to escape were exiled in the US and Britain and they enriched the cultural life of their countries of refuge.

Scientists however were inclined to cooperate with the Nazi regime. John Cornwall's "Hitler's Scientists" narrates that the physicists first were coopted, the chemists followed, the physicians too (the most famous Nazi physician-scientist is no other than Dr Josef Mengele), the engineers, anthropologists, economists and almost all scientists. The scientists who went into the Nazi research establishment got perks as reich scientists of the highest degree. Some like Werner von Braun were desperately needed by the victorious Americans, were quickly deNazified and put on the science Cold War front. The truth is without Nazi science we won't have NASA science!

Cornwall writes "scientists are unusually dependent [on the state] compared with artists". While some can dispense with the perks, if it comes with dispensing survival, the choice is clear. Scientists will keep their mouths shut.

Artists were different. Some did choose the chimney since they knew their art will survive them. The scientists weren't sure.

If we learn the lessons of the Nazi horror, then we would realize that it is a sign of impending dictatorship when the Head of State interferes in the selection of national artists or scientists in the name of prerogative. In a democracy prerogative is exercised sparingly, and the President's approval of nominations is a largely ministerial function.

In Hitler's Germany, it started with "degenerate" arts and science. The degenerate art and science extolled the most evil in human society.

As for Nazi science, some good did come out of it aside from the Cold War space race. Our present day ideas on cancer epidemiology are based on what Nazi doctors did. Nazi scientists were the first to link tobacco smoking with lung cancer and meaty and low fiber diets with colon cancer. This is a consequence of fascism and Hitler being a non-smoker and a confirmed vegetarian!


Dean Jorge Bocobo said...

I was hoping someone would bring up the NAST. I think part of "senility" aspect is that NAST cannot increase its membership unless one member dies (100 members max?). that guarantees the "greying" of the academy does it not?

blackshama said...

That's exactly what Prof Laca is ballistic about!

Dean Jorge Bocobo said...

From Marne Kilates on Facebook:
Dean, thanks for this. It would seem that scientists are prone to be absorbed into the bureaucracy because the state itself has embraced science as a "practical" tool for nation- or economy-building. Thus governments are willing to pay for research fellowships and grants. The arts, it would seem, came in late as a state-supported sector, because the benefit of the arts to society are less visible or measurable. But modern governments should take a hint or two from Hitler--the arts are most valuable in the manipulation of the national imagination (imagination being the main stuff of art). Astute politicians should make artists feel independent and important, instead of meddling in their (ego-massaging) awards. Our governments have always been ignorant of this since they put art and education at the back-end of national priorities, or since Marcos instituted the National Artist award.

Jesusa Bernardo said...

Hitler sure recognized the importance of the arts in shaping the national consciousness. I'm not sure whether he made the artists feel independent though, at least not in general.