by carl wilson

She Creates! She Scores!

anderson-pamela.jpg

Arts awards are a topical subject today, given tonight's East Coast Music Awards, the upcoming Oscars and the Junos - which, it's just been announced, will be hosted by Canada's own plaster-caster manqué, Pamela Anderson. (Er, above.) And then there's the less-bodacious controversy in the comments boxes this weekend, concerning, first, my omitting mention of the upcoming 2006 National Jazz Awards (given that one of my favourite local musicians, bassist Rob Clutton, is nominated, among many other worthy players) - and, subsequently, the issue of whether "the whole notion of best this or that is so incredibly old school" and "not as much about music as it is about sports."

Artistic competition is a tradition going back to the Ancient Greek drama festivals (which were paired with sporting contests) and it's not going to go away, nor should it, for just the reason Tim was suggesting - it raises audience awareness and excitement. Witness American Idol (and its kin), which tricks people into watching a show about singing because someone is going to win (and, more frequently and schadenfreud-satisfyingly, lose). Even more so witness the CBC's National Playlist, which manages to trick a sizable audience into listening to a daily half-hour of music criticism by making it a game, complete with time restrictions, ringing bells and elimination rounds. The game has no real purpose other than to be a game, but the gambit works. Saying "art is not a contest" is stupid - art is in competition with other art and non-art for the public's time, and awards and other competitive spectacles are the Trojan Horses artists use to penetrate the fortress of mass and media attention. Art is also a contest for meaning, and significance, wrapped up in concepts of advancement and evolution and influence that, for all their pernicious deceptions, we have a hard time living without.

People have an apparently innate enjoyment of contests, and if some gladiatorial sparring has the effect of focusing minds upon the arts once in a while, it's a good tactic, as suggested by the inventors of Theatresports and other comedy-improv contests, as well as poetry slams, etc. (Granted, the challenge is to devise ways that the rules of the game can prevent the level of pandering to which these contests can sink. But I'll leave that for now.) It's certainly far preferable to the more common approach of treating art with the language of business, in which box-office stats, TV ratings, album sales and auction prices become the biggest arbiters of value. If only there were an art Olympics, with the same requirement of amateurism and fascination with the process!

Of course that is not art's primary value and purpose. But why is that even worth saying? The "art is not a contest" complaint generally seems to stem from a sappy wish to assert that all art deserves our love (which is not true), which ultimately masks a fear that if art is a contest, the speaker may be losing it. It's the sentiment that says that if there are to be any awards given out in schools, everybody has to get one, and so forth. Go watch The Incredibles: Saying everyone is special is a way of saying that nobody is special, and while that is true in terms of basic human worth, in fact people (including artists) are special in multivalent ways and not equal to one another on every level, and recognition of extraordinary talents and achievements seems to me more democratic in its acknowledgment of that diversity and the qualities that make humanity seem a more viable going proposition, against all the reasons to give up on the whole pitiful mess. You'd think, from the chagrin with which some speak of it, that the penalty for losing the Giller or the Juno were execution, or at least the immediate cessation of your career, when mostly they raise interest in their fields in general, to everyone's benefit.

Not to say that the evaluation and jockeying for position are not constantly getting out of hand: I would prefer a culture of arts appreciation in which the central communal ritual was not the annual, lumped-together 10-best list. I heard an interesting comment on NPR this weekend that the elimination of separate Oscars for musical scores for dramatic films and comedies has resulted in a total shut-out of comedy scores, due to inherent biases in the film academy's judgments, which consider dramas more Important, and overblown John Williamsesque scores therefore more significant than those with a light, agile touch. That is what Best lists tend to do, when they're not separated out into categories each with their own valid criteria.

And of course, the process lends itself to corruption: Check out James F. English's recent book The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, which documents the myriad ways the ever-growing field of arts prizes acts like a crazed counterfeiting machine that goes on adding ersatz cultural currency to the system until every kind of cultural capital seems always-already-surplus. (In its function as an annex of the celebrity-industrial complex.) But English also notes the way that the prizes all act as pivot points for argument - the purpose of the awards is as much to be wrong as to be right, to be denounced, to leave out the "real winner" and propel a whole cacophanous discourse around value and quality. And even then, they're not taken too seriously, if you compare it to the way people get emotional about athletics, the way Wayne Gretzky is now somehow covered in a shroud of grief because his team didn't win the gold medal. (You don't get headlines reading A Nation in Mourning when Denys Arcand doesn't win a foreign-film Oscar!)

All that said, though, there's a specific reason why I haven't talked about the National Jazz Awards, and it has to do with the creepy process involved. Because they're awarded by a strangely arbitrary online popular vote, the nominees are pushed (by understandable career anxiety) into lobbying mode, rattling around in my email in-box pleading "vote for me!" as if they were running for queen of the jazz prom. The whole thing is uncomfortable and damaging to the dignity of the musicians and of the potential voters they have to glad-hand. I wish it were a juried prize or even an "academy" kind of process (which would at least introduce a degree of formality to the atmosphere, as well as, in both cases, producing enjoyable caricaturable villains, as James English documents). It leaves me unenthused to participate. We may disagree (hell, I may even disagree with myself) about whether art should be more like sports. But surely none of us are yearning for it to be even more like politics.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Monday, February 27 at 3:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

COMMENTS

Again, I don't believe the idea that "where there are winners there are losers." If a book or an album wins an award, it's not implicitly saying, "All the other books suck." I think it's more accurate to say that in the arts, in this society, outside the Entertainment Biz we all start in a losing position relative to the dominant values. Making "winners" out of some artists recognizes the dignity of the enterprise, and doesn't in any mystical way confer indignity on anyone else. That said, are awards generally irrelevant to the most vital and nourishing elements of the activity? Of course they are. But to hate and fear awards in this way seems grounded in resentment, and confers on them an irrational power.

Posted by zoilus on March 5, 2006 8:34 PM

 

 

..whoooeeeYEAH...what he SAID!!...it really has come down to absolute basics in so many things and in so many ways... principled stands in end times/beginning times...to try and rationalise is looking at 'straw-grabbing' in this perilous age...or in some ways trying to put a bandage on a decapitation and hoping for recovery...if we don't start from the ground and up, we'll just make the same mistakes...this, i believe defines progress...we have the means...peace...nilan

Posted by nilan on March 2, 2006 10:25 PM

 

 

Competition is competition and is an inherent enemy of any hopeful social life. Where there are winners there are losers. Where there is importance there is unimportance. The whole lot of them creating refuse out of human beings and social activity, creating lack, guilt, poverty, shame, and paranoia and making people feel crap about themselves along the way.

Posted by eric on March 2, 2006 3:54 PM

 

 

...woof...the subjectivity express...okok...your link didn't work, tim, so i have no idea whether these awards were 'in the moment ' or tributes...do the juno's do that?....the 'fuk-you're-still around?-here's -an-award-for-us-waking-up'award?...and U2???...i listened to some U2 the other day and i couldn't distiguish it from U2 circa 5 years ago or whatever...and yes the cyclical nature of public taste/need meshing with some badass musical gesture is a given....i have faith in at least that...the machine is not interested in people thinking which is why it refuses to promote art....it likes commodity A LOT and is willing to stoop to minimal and controlled compromises...but i'm getting redundant and i dislike redundancy so i'll let it rest in the agree to disagree spot...seeya on the b-side...peace...nilan...ps..i've been re-reading greil marcus' lipstick traces and have been curiouser and curiouser about the situationists lately so that probably explains my, um, vociferousness

Posted by nilan on March 1, 2006 10:37 PM

 

 

awww, okay, jody, you can keep your gossip mags. and i'll keep my tv. it was a rhetorical point. i'm not actually a cultural eliminationist of any kind, just saying that if one were, prizes would be a crazy place to start. ... and you're dead on (as tim shows) about "art" and "entertainment" - tho it remains true that my favourite marginal stuff is emotionally the dearest to me, and to nilan, that's not to say it is on average better. that's to say something about the kind of fellows nilan and i are, i.e. art geeks. though if i had to choose to wipe my memory of, say, either Albert Ayler or The Philadelphia Story, it would be a very painful moment.

Posted by zoilus on March 1, 2006 3:10 AM

 

 

Nilan,

I only had to go to through two Juno categories in their online archives (kinda fun!...http://www.junoawards.ca/ARC_past.php) and came up with a few pretty good artists.

Oscar Peterson
Ed Bickert
Mike Murley
Bruce Cockburn
Leonard Cohen
Neil Young (check out his new concert film!!)

tim

Posted by tim on February 28, 2006 11:21 PM

 

 

Nilan...I'm probably stating the obvious, but I'd wager that the banality to which you refer exists within the realm of (to use your terms) "art" (i.e., commercially marginal/underground art) in at least the same proportion as in "entertainment" (aka commercially successful/popular art). In fact, I'd be willing to argue that the there is relatively *less* banality/cruddy art in mainstream mass culture (Hollywood, Top 40 pop, etc). Historically speaking, the mass audience has been a pretty decent judge of quality, and surprisingly often, the cream rises to the top. I know that reflexive populism (or "popism") is as foolish a stance as the opposite, but really: look at history. As for mainstream awards shows whose CDs I'd buy, how about the 2006 Grammys: Kanye West, U2, Bebo Valdes, Jelly Roll Morton, etc.???

Carl, have a heart: don't get rid of the gossip mags.

Posted by Jody on February 28, 2006 8:15 PM

 

 

Nilan, i take your points + sympathize, but my argument isn't that awards + competitions foster great art in themselves. (except by negative example, which is not to be underestimated - the "i'll show them" attitude.) but i think the kind of art closest to your heart and mine is always a marginal proposition, seldom congruent with the art that is Succe$$ful. what awards do is maintain a higher profile for the arts in general in society - which in turn allows for a somewhat wider margin. because altho the arts are a competition it's not a zero-sum competition, which is the reason a supportive community is better than a viciously backbiting one. the awards, i'd argue, bring more resources to the arts, part of which will reach the best. it's a bit of a trickledown theory, i admit, but i think it's true. just for an example: if i want to champion Chris Marker as a filmmaker over Steven Spielberg, i can get that article into the paper (hypothetically) by saying Marker should have gotten an Oscar nomination instead of Spielberg. whereas if i just want to write "in praise of chris marker," that's less likely to get the editors' attention. likewise, it's great that there is a jazz category at the Junos or a latin-instrumental category in the Grammys, so artists can put "Grammy-winning" on their record covers and press releases and thereby get at least *some* coverage for jazz or Cuban music rather than none, to let people know the whole field exists. it doesn't particularly matter who it is even though it probably would be better if the "truly" best got recognition.

so making the arts prizes out to be the enemy seems like coming at cultural revolution assbackwards. awards are an accommodation that makes the current system a bit more livable, that creates an alternative form of recompense beyond the purely monetary. i would get rid of major record labels, hollywood, television, gossip tabloids, etc., long before i'd get rid of awards.

Posted by zoilus on February 28, 2006 2:31 PM

 

 

Ha! This makes me remember a funny conversation I had with Fred Eaglesmith. We were lined up together at the pay tent of a folk festival, cashing out after a great weekend of music. Fred got signed out, came back to me and said with envelope in hand, "Whoever thinks this isn't a competition is just full of shit, man".

Posted by colonel tom on February 28, 2006 7:51 AM

 

 

> If only there were an art Olympics,
> with the same requirement of amateurism and
> fascination with the process!

Fun Fact of the Day:

When the modern olympics were first created, they included medals in a number of arts, including sculpture, painting, literature and music. They did for a few olympiads, but I think it didn't work out so well.

Interestingly, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who invnted the modern Olympics, also won a medal for Poetry for his "Ode to Sport", which begins:


O Sport, pleasure of the Gods,essence of life.
You appeared sud-denly in the midst of the grey clearing
which writhes with the drudgery of modern existence,
like the radiant messenger of a past age,
when mankind still smiled.


... and goes on for 9 stanzas.


All of this is true.

See:
http://www.askart.com/AskART/interest/Olympic_Artists_1.aspx?id=38
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_competitions_at_the_Olympic_Games
http://www.aafla.com/OlympicInformationCenter/OlympicReview/1986/ore222/ore222z.pdf

And read the "ode to sport" at:
http://www.7117.org/modules/ipboard/index.php?s=&act;=ST&f;=6&t;=297

Posted by Misha on February 28, 2006 12:51 AM

 

 

...haw...thanx fer the quote, carl...i go with motley crue's definition of publicity i.e. ANY publicity is good publicity...which leads me to the points made about 'competition' and the awards that are based on them...your observations on the function of competiton in the realm of art works only if the culture has the ability to actually discern art as separate and more intrinsically valuable than entertainment or at least be able to discern the difference...if most of the field is banal and banality is seen to be not only normal, but somehow desirable, art is kneecapped without a murmur...since you have pointed out american idol as an example, i rest my case, almost...how many groundbreakers won awards at the time of their most fertile development as opposed to getting them after their influence is inarguable?...ornette?..cecil taylor?....the sex pistols?....given the current state of the music industry, if you can tell me about one awards ceremony whose winners you would consistently BUY cds from i'd be stunned and grateful...frankly the sad state of most critique (in Canada, anyway), even and especially within the ranks of artists guarantees the progress of art as being 2 steps forward and one step back...art is not furthered by bland silence....sorry kids, at the risk of over-simplifying, more booing gets you better art...and most award shows that i've seen are as about as cutting edge as a pint of warm milk and promote the most acceptable/profitable....which has nothing to do with art....peace...nilan

Posted by nilan on February 27, 2006 11:54 PM

 

 

Excellent points! Artists are always decrying competition, but secretly we're as bad or worse than anyone else. In fact, in my experience the more "communitarian" someone is publicly, the more likely they are to be ruthlessly competitive behind closed doors.

Posted by Malstain on February 27, 2006 10:08 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson