Bienvenido Lumbera’s legacy: Debunking art for art’s sake


The title of a National Artist is undeniably coveted. In many instances, nominees and awardees are held in such high regard as they are believed to have reached the highest level of success in their field.

While Bienvenido Lumbera was no exception, he stands at a level much higher than certain National Artists (particularly someone who has used his clout to justify the Duterte administration’s repression of our basic freedoms).

The first time I found out the Lumbera was coming to an event, I felt restless and nervous, knowing that a national artist was coming. Anyone would be excited to meet a renowned author. But there was no fanfare. True enough, the people shook his hands and his presence commanded respect. He wore glasses, fitting an aura of an esteemed professor and artist. Still, he did not exude arrogance or treat anyone condescendingly by bragging that he is a national artist.

How, then, did Lumbera establish his credibility? His eloquence came not from his ambitions, but from his love for the country and its people. Unlike others who studied and created art for art’s sake, Lumbera showed his depth because he truly believed in and played an integral part in the primary subject of his writings — the people’s struggle.

He grew up an orphan, lacking the access and funds to books. Having lived and experienced the ills of society himself, it was not surprising for him to become an activist later on. He organized the Panulat para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan (PAKSA) and was jailed for 11 months for publicly writing and opposing the Marcos dictatorship. During his detention at Fort Bonifacio, he witnessed one of his students subjected to water torture and get paddled by state elements.

But even after his release and the subsequent downfall of the Marcos regime, Lumbera remained undaunted. Up to his last breath, he remained a consistent participant in various campaigns for accountability, justice, and genuine freedom. He was not only an artist but a fellow protester holding placards, and walking alongside the marginalized. He was part of the impeachment complaint against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was vocal against the pork barrel, demanded accountability for former President Benigno Aquino III’s neglect and incompetence, and condemned killings and attacks of Lumad and the militarization of their ancestral domains. He stood up for the protection of the Filipino language. Just recently, he was also among the petitioners who questioned the constitutionality of President Rodrigo Duterte’s Anti-Terror Law before the Supreme Court.

Ang aming lumang photo ng partisipasyon sa lakbayan laban sa base militar ng US. Kundi ako nagkakamali, stopover ito sa Clark para meetup sa Central at Northern Luzon protesters, at nang papunta na kami sa Subic, hinarang na ang nagproprotesya sa highway boundary ng Olongapo. Si Bienvenido Lumbera ang cool dude sa pack, si Monico Atienza ang seryosong guro.

Kundi rin ako nagkakamali, may packed snacks at sandwiches si Joi Barrios-Leblanc, at di ko maalaala kung paano kami nagsiksikan sa kotse ng Joi na sinasandalan namin sa litrato. Three generations of activists (and teachers) ang nasa litrato, since pre-martial law, 1980s at 1990s na umigpaw sa kalituhan at naging lunduyan sa aktibismo sa kasalukuyan. (Posted by Rolando Tolentino on October 4, 2021)

For Lumbera, his talent and craft were not something to be celebrated but must be used as a tool. He would repeatedly encourage aspiring writers to leave their ‘desks’, to become critical, and to use their eloquence as an instrument to advance the people’s struggle.

“Ang masa, ang masa, ‘pag nabuksan ang isip, uukit ng landas tungo sa kalayaan,” he wrote in a poem entitled Ka Bel.

In fact, to dichotomize Lumbera separately as an artist and as a writer is just plain profanity. Lumbera, more than being a writer and a National Artist, is a genuine servant of the Filipino people.

His life and works have immortalized, supported, and advanced the people’s struggle. He used his pen and eloquence to his last breath to expose and oppose one puppet and fascist regime after another; to organize writers, non-writers, students, and fellow professors; and to mobilize the greatest number of people by evoking their emotions and critical thinking through literary and non-literary pieces and teachings.

He proved that a successful writer is not someone who flies with wings, but someone who keeps his or feet on the ground. It is not simply ‘art’ that makes art. It is not simply about beauty or achieving a standard of eloquence at par with that of internationally-renowned authors and artists. Art, as Lumbera has proven, is about the people, the objective, and the ideology it wants to echo. Whatever we choose will define not only our careers, but also our contributions as freedom-and-peace-loving citizens.

As he wrote in the poem, Sa Muling Pagsibol:

“Dali na, sinupin ang bangka,
Bungkalin na ang lupa,
Bigkisin ang himla ng tiyaga,
Ibangon ang nalugmok na tangka,
Sa kaparangang ngayo’y salanta,
Kamay mo ang magtatanim ng bagong biyaya.”

Lumbera had talent, and he made good use of it. His works are timeless — not only because of how beautifully words were arranged and crafted to convey a message but more so because of the message itself. That is the legacy of a true national artist. (JJE, DAA, RVO) (

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