02 September 2011

Competitive Art

I’ve hinted in the past that I don’t think much of awards and prizes in the arts, including the Tonys, the Oscars, the Emmys, and even the Pulitzers—as well as the scores of other awards for music, writing, dance, or aesthetic basket-weaving (see “Tony Committee to Theater Journalists: ‘Yer Out!’” ROT, 17 August 2009). I’ve never articulated my reasons for this disdain except privately to a couple of friends, especially around award times when the big galas are on TV and everyone else I know is watching them. I’ve decided it’s time to try to explain my position. Let’s see if I can.

First of all, let me clear up one confusion that’s come up a few times when the Tonys or the Oscars come on TV and friends ask if I’ll be watching and I tell them I won’t be. “Oh, yes,” some of them reply, “you don’t approve of them.” Well, yes—as you’ll see, I hope—but that’s not really why I don’t watch the shows. The very simple reason for that is that I find them awful and boring as TV fare. They’re overlong, the speeches and appearances are dull, the humility is mostly artificial, and I’ve seldom seen most of the performances being “honored.” That leaves only the entertainment the award show’s producers have interspersed in the parched desert that fills the rest of the hours, the patter of the host and the presenters and the scenes and musical numbers from the nominated productions. As for the former, the attempted levity of the MC’s and their cohorts . . . well, it’s seldom all that good: most of it’s inside jokes and industry banter—and occasionally the host really lays an egg. (I made the mistake of making an exception to my own practice several years ago to watch the Academy Awards the night Dave Letterman hosted in 1995. I’m a fan and I wanted to see what he’d do with the gig. Man, was that a bad call. Even he acknowledges he was lousy. And does anyone remember Rob Lowe’s auspicious appearance in ’89. Can you say “Snow White”?) So it’s not because I disapprove that I don’t watch the award shows—it’s simply because I don’t like them. (If I thought the broadcasts were any good, I might be conflicted about watching them because of the way I feel about performance awards, but as it is, that’s irrelevant.)

Second, I should admit to being something of a hypocrite when it comes to art awards. I do disparage them and on the few occasions when I’ve been eligible to participate (I can vote for the SAG Awards and I’ve been qualified to vote for the Regional Tony and some ATCA playwriting awards in the past), I haven’t done so because I don’t like the idea of awards in artistic fields. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should also acknowledge that for several years, my late father was a voter on the Helen Hayes Awards panel in Washington, D.C., and I never remonstrated with him.) Yet I cite the awards when I write about actors, directors, or productions that have won or been nominated for them. I even made an argument opposing the Tony committee’s elimination of theater journalists from the voter list for that theater award (in the 2009 ROT article I referenced earlier). The problem seems to be that though I don’t put store in such awards, I know that other people do, so when I name an artist or an artwork, I mention awards they’ve won, but I feel awkward doing that. Still, I do it.

Finally, I make distinctions among awards, and that may be a little hypocritical, too. For instance, I don’t object to recognition for sales or popularity, like best-seller designations because that’s based on book sales and not a judgment of quality. It’s also theoretically objective—one book sells more than another. I have the same feeling about gold and platinum records in the music business—again, because it’s based on sales. I think the People’s Choice Awards are silly, but I don’t really object to them because they’re based on a straightforward popularity contest, not a presumptive quality evaluation. I also don’t have the same problem with halls of fame as I do with awards for superiority. (I have also been eligible to vote for candidates for the Theatre Hall of Fame, though I don’t—but that’s because I just don’t feel qualified to judge.) Halls of fame seem different to me because they honor artists for a lifetime or career of contributions to their fields, which seems like a sufficiently substantial basis for some kind of judgment. Also, voting one artist into a hall of fame one year doesn’t preclude that another artist who’d been passed over won’t be honored in another year; if someone doesn’t get an Oscar for a particular performance or a Pulitzer for a specific book or play, it’s finite—that work won’t get a second consideration.

Okay, let’s get to the heart of my problem—and I admit it’s my problem and I’m in a minority here. I object to awards in the arts for two main reasons: they’re a terribly subjective call and I feel they demean the arts they purport to celebrate. Here’s what I mean:

I guess the subjectivity issue is straightforward. If a runner beats everyone else’s times, he’s the champ, right? That’s clear. It’s objectively measured. If a soccer team scores more goals than its opponent, it wins the match. No question, right? If a tennis player accumulates more victories than any other on the tour, she’s number one in the sport. That’s self-evident. But how do you really adjudge one performance better than another or one movie or play better than the next? It’s a personal and individual response. I’m sure many of the Oscar or Tony judges can come up with justifications, citing all kinds of film-study or performance-study explanations for why they decided the way they did, but many others will just tell you they like one better than the others—and I submit that all arts-awards judges really go with a gut feeling. (I’m not going to get into the potential for professional politics in these contexts. It makes the whole process way too complicated even to discuss cogently.) I can’t even imagine what someone’s criteria would be for making such a judgment. Look what some people use for their evaluative basis: I took a group of high school theater students to a play competition one year. (It was part of my job and I wasn’t about to impose my private objections on the students for whom participation was a valued tradition.) One entrant was a student-directed staging of a Chekhov one-act. The production didn’t win its category and after the awards were announced, the judges held a critique for the participants. I was appalled when one judge objected to a line in the text that included a phrase which the judge felt sounded too contemporary. First of all, the student director, a senior who was a serious theater student, hadn’t translated the script; she was using a published English rendition, so she wasn’t responsible for the text. Second, I had brought along a Russian edition of the play (just to share with the director), and I found that the original words were exactly the same as the English. The translation wasn’t even inaccurate! I was aghast: this was what the judge found to object to in the production? (I did point this out, but the prizes had already been awarded. I also wrote to the competition’s organizers, but nothing came of that, either.)

Now, granted, this was a high school theater competition, but I have no doubt that the big-league judges engage in identical inanities. We all know that after an awards ceremony, or even after the announcement of the nominees for an award, there’s a lot of moaning and groaning about what got left out, overlooked, or misjudged. No arts award goes without some second-guessing or caviling among the disappointed. Of course, it’s subjective. Art is subjective. If there were ever such a thing as objective art, it would almost certainly be boring. Art succeeds because it is personal: it comes from a personal place in the artist and it speaks to something personal in the consumer. Susanne Langer, the art philosopher (see “Susanne Langer: Art, Beauty, & Theater,” parts 1 & 2, ROT, 4 & 8 January 2010), wrote succinctly, “Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling.” Feeling, by definition, is subjective; you can’t rationalize feeling. Art, said Langer, “clarifies and organizes intuition” and therefore “elicits no conscious intellectual work (reasoning).” Art functions outside of reason: it’s not irrational, but arational.

Just to be sure we understand this idea, and its application to art competitions, Langer got specific:

Works of art are not usually comparable. Only prize-juries have to evaluate them with reference to some standard, which is inevitably arbitrary and in many cases inapplicable. A competent jury does not even define a standard. If it consists of people who have developed their powers of perception by long conversance with the order of art . . . in which their judgments are to be made, intuition will guide the verdict. There will be disagreements—not because good and bad works cannot be distinguished, but because among successful ones there is no sure principle of selection. Personal or social factors usually tip the balances; ‘ratings’ are trivial.

“Personal or social factors” are in evidence all the time. We can see in any given awards competition how sentiment for or against an artist affects the vote. We hear people say, “It’s her turn” or “He lost last year so he’ll probably get it this year in compensation.” If an artist has offended the community (or, more directly, “the academy”), the work might be overlooked not for its lack of quality, but because the voters were miffed. Industry bias, such as the film academy’s putative leaning toward box-office hits rather than innovative, difficult work or its apparent preference for dramas over comedies are part of the equation. (The drama Pulitzer has only been awarded to eight musical plays in the nine decades since the prize was inaugurated—a period that spans the golden age of the American musical theater.) Politics can also come into play, both the internal or artistic kind and the actual kind. Say, if it were possible, a dramatist composed the best play ever written—but its theme was pro-Nazi. You know it would never win any award. (Hell, it probably wouldn’t even get staged!)

A work of art, by Langer’s estimation (and mine), can’t be judged in comparison with another with any claim to legitimacy. Furthermore, we know from experience that even individual taste changes over time. A work of art you liked ten years ago might seem silly and superficial today. Collective taste changes, too. Consider the well-known case of Vincent van Gogh, today acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of all time, who sold only one painting in his lifetime—and that was to his brother! Actors as respected as Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Maureen O’Hara, and Gena Rowlands have never won Oscars; Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman, and Sidney Lumet have never won for directing some of our best movies; dramatists Lillian Hellman, S. N. Behrman, and Philip Barry never won Pulitzers (neither did novelists F. Scott Fitzgerald or Truman Capote). Now look at a list of past Oscar-, Tony-, or Pulitzer-winning movies, books, and plays. How many are almost an embarrassment by today’s standards? If we had it to do over again, we might select a different work to recognize. (And then, we might change our opinions again ten years from now.) On this basis, people declare one work or one artist the best of the year? It doesn’t work for me.

The assertion that such competitions demean the art itself is a little harder to put into words. It’s a pretty subjective statement itself, isn’t it? Okay, I’m writing about my own opinions here, not some universal sense I think is shared by a large majority, so subjectivity is the matrix in which I’m operating. I object, even resent, art being turned into a competitive effort like sports or hot-dog eating. Now, I don’t think artists, particularly playwrights, consciously compete with their peers for awards and prizes—they’re too busy making art. (I have no doubt that there are producers, both in Hollywood and on Broadway, who have one eye on Oscars and Tonys when they set out to put together a production—and there may be an actor or two who see statuettes in their futures when they read scripts.) I subscribe to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s sentiment, expressed in his essay “Art,” that “every genuine work of art has as much reason for being as the earth and the sun.” A work of art, whether it’s a painting, a poem, or a performance, should be its own justification, its own raison d’être; it shouldn’t depend on some outside recognition for validation.

As Langer said, art’s function is to raise feelings in the spectator—that should be the only evaluation needed. Either the art affects me, makes me feel something that wasn’t there before or understand something in a new way, or it doesn’t. If it’s a great work of art, it will have that effect on more people who experience it (each in his or her own way, of course), and it will continue to have an effect—though the effect may shift—over time. That’s what defines a classic artwork, like Hamlet, the Mona Lisa, Oliver Twist, or Citizen Kane. Shakespeare, Da Vinci, and Dickens all created quite nicely, thank you, without prizes and awards. (So did Welles, really, though he was working in the era of the Oscar, New York Film Critics Award, DGA Award, WGA Award, and Golden Globes. He was passed over for most of his work anyway.) Of course a work’s reception is important to an artist; despite what some artists say, few really create just for themselves. And I also recognize that grants and commissions, which go back to the days of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and Da Vinci, are significant in an artist’s creative life—and they are a form of competition, I acknowledge. My argument is fraught with contradictions, I know. But singling out one work for recognition the way an award does, or one artist, as even the famous MacArthur genius grants do, disturbs me.

I know that some competition is always going to be part of the arts, just as it is in all human endeavors. We are a competitive species. There are limited resources and venues, so artists will always have to vie for access. Someone’s going to get the commission or the exhibit and someone else isn’t. And I’m sure that in some cases, whoever controls the desired asset deliberately sets the assignment up as a competition, but even that’s not quite the same as turning the creation of art into a race for recognition the way a prize does. It just seems unseemly to me. Artists should be concerned with the best work they can do, comparing their new work with their past accomplishments if they have to try to better something; they shouldn’t feel they have to outdo other artists. Yes, consumers and critics will inevitably compare one artist and one artwork with another—but the artists shouldn’t have to do that.

I think it’s also an element of my distaste for art awards and prizes that there are so many of them. The music business, for instance, seems to have awards for every song and musician the industry can define—which may explain why the Grammys have recently consolidated several categories. (Musicians in the fields that were eliminated are complaining about the action, perhaps because it’s gotten so that all artists feel that they deserve some kind of award of their very own.) It’s getting to be like some children’s activities where every participant gets recognition so no one feels left out. Is that what we’ve developed: a culture where artists are childish and infantile? If I don’t get a prize, I’ll hold my breath until I turn blue?

Some of the organizations which give out the awards seem gratuitous as well. The so-called Foreign Press Association, who presents the Golden Globes, doesn’t have any function except giving out the award, I don’t believe. And essentially, the award itself seems to be little more than an excuse to stage a TV extravaganza. On top of all the different Grammys, for example, what’s the need for the MTV Video Music Awards as well? Since MTV’s a cable TV network (which, umm, airs music videos!), I’m left to assume that its purpose is to, first, promote the network and, second, justify a big broadcast they hope will draw substantial ratings. (Do we need awards for advertisements or porn? Really?)

That most of the big awards are more about selling tickets, records, or books (or, in the case of TV, more ads) was, I think, exposed when the Tonys eliminated reviewers from the voting pool. (Journalists haven’t been part of the voting pools for most of the other major performance awards—though I’m not certain about the Grammys.) Of all the interested parties, the journalists were the least invested in the outcome: they didn’t stand to make more money or get better jobs if a show they liked won an award. Everyone else, all industry insiders, has skin in the game, to a greater or lesser degree (even if it’s only to scuttle a rival’s prestige), but the journalists also had an occasional tendency to vote for artier little plays that caught their fancies instead of the big commercial hits the producers want to promote for long Broadway runs and later lucrative tours. In other words, the reviewers voted for the art while the others are focused on the commerce. Now the award won’t stand in the way of recognizing the money-making crowd-pleaser rather than the innovator that might attract a smaller audience.

I have no idea if any of the award shows actually does draw a large audience, but that seems to me to be their major rationale—especially when they get more and more elaborate each year or make rules aimed at selecting more popular nominees. Doesn’t that give the game away? Particularly when it turns out that those additional crowd-pleasers aren’t really expected to win anything. In marketing, those are called loss leaders—and their sole use is to sell other stuff. That seems to be the intention: marketing, sales, promotion—not honoring artistic achievement. In fact, as far as I can see, even the major awards like the Oscars and the Tonys have only one benefit: they sell tickets. I suppose artists who win one get to feel good about their work, but beyond that, they’re an advertising gimmick to help put asses in seats. That may be the art of the deal, but it’s not art.

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