Does prize culture in the arts spells disaster? In an era where “Everyone’s a Winner”, the bar continues a downward decent, and children are given “diplomas” for completing nursery — James W. Wood argues that creators, artists and audiences should have only one interest: pleasure.
Consider Mozart: he never won too many prizes, and spent what little he earned on a demanding young wife and family. He composed young and died young — the kind of genius that would inspire any romantic mind, not unlike Rimbaud, who committed an entire revolution to the written page before the age of 17.
But who really cares about Rimbaud and Mozart? These days, we’ve got to have “perhaps the greatest violinist playing today” (note the qualifier), or, “the brightest talent for decades” — because to suggest that, in fact, some people are pretty good right now and might get better if they were given time to breathe is a little prosaic for the contemporary arts marketing department.
Instead of presenting us with the difficult truth that most artists work long and hard for little reward, and that most people aren’t that good, the marketing department has decided that consumers will find the truth more palatable when presented in bite-sized, shrink-wrapped packets. The keepers of culture have resorted to showering prizes on writers and artists to give the appearance of real quality – even if neither audience nor artist enjoy the result.
Peddlers of poetry lead the way. Dust jackets now abound with the usual encomia from critics and cryptic biographical information: “lives with his wife and two children in Vermont” (not gay); “lives with his partner in North London” (sophisticated and deliberately vague) — followed by an even longer list of the prizes the writer has accumulated: “Jack Horner won joint second prize in the Lingum Review’s Poem of the Year Competition, and was also shortlisted for the Perineum Foundation’s Versifier of the Decade (’90-2000)”, and so on.
A question rears in the mist of all these prizes: do such accolades, even the most serious ones such as the Booker Prize and indeed the Nobel Prize signify some species of absolute quality? Or are they rather not much more than proof of an artist’s ability to conform to an increasingly narrow and stereotypical perception of what creativity is and can do, twisted to meet the demands of an increasingly “busy” and “on-demand” culture?
It seems that the more prizes are considered the definitive stamp of quality, the less focus there is on the work itself. Like the golfer who never wins a tournament, it’s possible to have a successful career without actually being any good, as long as one plays the game and keeps the right friends. In return, the prize winner also inherits the brand identity of the prize — i.e. being branded a “women’s” writer (The Orange Prize); old (The Sagittarius Prize for Fiction) and the like.
Young poets seem eager to point out awards, prizes and accolades in by-lines. In my opinion, these prizes differ from supporting quotations — support from other writers involves risk: if people lend their name to a book and the book turns out bad, then they take some of the shame. Prizes, on the other hand, are largely doled out by faceless committees who run no risk at all. The people who suffer a prize-laden book are the poor people who buy the book and turn up at the readings.
One wonders what today’s prize culture would make of Louis-Ferdinand de Celine’s fascist politics; Samuel Beckett, 47 before his first acclaim despite 20 years as a published writer, or Herbert von Karajan and a long list of others, names that would sit uncomfortably in a culture that values cultural relevance over quality.
Most audiences do not have the time nor the necessary specialist knowledge to argue with prize-givers. Technology has made our world so fast that it’s both easy and forgivable to let someone else make our decisions. “She must be good. She’s on that shortlist”
Mercifully, every so often, a book, film or performance comes along to remind us that human creativity will prevail no matter how hard some committee tries to warp it to narrow our perception of what matters. Usually this work will come out of nowhere, and cost little or nothing to produce. Unfortunately, it will then win some prizes, and people will finally start to realise what they’ve been missing — won’t they? —JWW