Ever since The Dionysia in ancient Greece, competitions have been part of the artistic landscape—theatre and music competitions, painting and sculpture prizes; novels, poems, short stories, etc., all judged so that one may be deemed better than the rest; the list is endless.
We have just entered the arts competition season—Golden Globes, Oscars, Grammys, Emmys, Peoples’ Choice Awards, Tonys, Pulitzers, National Book, all divided by the year in which they were produced…there are more awards than space here to enumerate them, much less to reflect on them. Throw in TV “reality” shows (the cooking and fashion contests) and all that’s left seems to be a tournament to decide who has the best dream every night!! Of course, there’s an entire industry built around analyzing first the nominees and then the winners—who should have been nominated and why, who should have won…
I can’t escape the thought, however, that we cannot really compare pieces of art, whether they are paintings, musical compositions, performances, or culinary masterpieces. Now I’ll concede that most items on my lists above would stretch credulity to be called art, but even if they are several places removed from the Ideal their appeal is still largely subjective. If artworks essentially are modes of self-expression, their attraction would appear to lie in eliciting personal responses, reverberating in our consciousness for empathic places to land, and thus abjuring objective labels of comparison beyond “I like this one better because it seems to arouse deeper feelings in me!” Do you prefer Hamlet to Lear? The Fifth to the Unfinished? The Mona Lisa to The Scream? So yes, we know that awards are only reflective of personal tastes (and often these days not even that, for money and “politics” weigh in heavily on the results), yet they take on the burden and imprimatur of settled fiat, particularly over time.
I challenge anyone to give me an artistic reason why Rex Harrison in 1964 should have won the Best Actor award for My Fair Lady over Richard Burton or Peter O’Toole (Becket), Anthony Quinn (Zorba), or Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove); or why My Fair Lady should have defeated the other two films for Best Picture! Myriad examples abound in every sphere of artistic endeavor! There is simply no way of telling, particularly at that level of excellence. Apart from the fact that we’re really comparing papayas and custard apples, we are also dependent on personal taste, background, experience, and mood.
I once found myself debating a friend over the preeminence of Beethoven versus Bach. Two minutes into the conversation I realized the futility of the exchange and then settled down to enjoy what was really a few moments of banter as we tried to pit the musical records of these two geniuses against each other. And that’s what it all boils down to—entertainment. Watching some episodes of “Chopped” on the Food Channel I found it amusing to see the judges hard-pressed to conjure reasons to eliminate contestants; to their credit they agonize over their decisions, searching for scruples, often outside the actual gustatory experience, because subjectivity is so painfully obvious across the panel.
So I should permit that to be the definitive statement and leave well enough alone—it’s entertainment! Why should it matter that we spend so much time trying to judge performances? In most cases it doesn’t really change the performances, does it? Or does it? It is natural to re-evaluate things in retrospect, but when something wins an award is that sufficient to endow it with an artistic halo it might not have had before? For the most part artists don’t create art to compete; directors and actors don’t make movies to win academy awards. Do they? What about studio heads? Would they greenlight a big-budget film unless they thought it had a chance to win an Oscar? And therein lies the rub. Once Art enters the competitive realm it changes because it cannot flourish without an audience and that audience is often controlled by vested entities with little or no interest in art itself but in what sells; and what sells is determined by so many factors outside the so-called artistic realm. Restaurateurs and chefs gain prominence on Award shows and people flock to them; movies with the tag lines, “Oscar winners…” have a better chance of making it through that all-important first weekend.
A panel of so-called experts (you’d be surprised how little it takes to become an “expert”) decides something or someone is better and that’s what causes it to fly off the shelves in our crowded marketplace. Those panels become the arbiters of taste, in many cases determining the life or death of an artwork. Rising costs to display or produce art define what makes it into the public arena and the more congested the bazaar the harder it is to be seen or heard. Once they seize upon what sells (for the moment, at least), that’s what many artists seek to reproduce. Independent self-expression is governed by economic realities, artists are forced to pander to public tastes, and the public, often swayed by self-styled critics, a myriad of blogs, and arbitrary panels of judges, demands more of the same! And thus begins the downward slide.
But if art has always depended on patronage—royalty and wealthy citizens in ancient times, foundations and trusts in ours—how wrong can it be to let the market (represented in some cases by “experts”) decide what should be produced? If we didn’t have filters and sieves to sift through the hundreds of poems, plays, novels, films, fashion designs, culinary outpourings, etc., how could we focus our attention on the brilliant ones? Without the judges and critics how do we separate the gems? How can we even notice them in the clusters of glass? So what if a few masterpieces are lost because inexperienced interns at publishers and playhouses have neither the experience nor imagination to recognize the really new work? If we survey history we’ll see that every age was blessed with only a few really great ones. After all, it wouldn’t really be art if anyone could do it, notwithstanding our propensity for referring to all performers as artists (particularly in the recording industry)!
We may not have Faulkner but we do have David Foster Wallace. Without The National Book Award, how would Jhumpa Lahiri explode in our midst? No Arthur Miller, but Tracy Letts is pretty good. As are Sarah Ruhl and Rajiv Joseph. And without Michelin who would tell us about Ferran Adria? No Beethoven, Michelangelo, or Shakespeare, but did we really expect to find another, ever? Even as I list these names I am admitting to a hierarchical preference, suggesting that some artists are and were the “best.” Perhaps it is unavoidable, this compulsion to compare and crown!
Today everyone is a critic because anyone can post a comment online. And television throws up a strange assortment of judges. Can we really say that the American Idol panel is as authentic as the one deciding the Pulitzer? Despite the snobbery embedded in that last remark, consider this pronouncement offered by Randy Jackson: “You started slow, but by the end you were chillin, dog!” Which is either echoed or contradicted by Simon Cowell’s pretentious indolence or Paula Abdul’s effusive inanities. Before we can accept the verdicts of judges without much demur perhaps they should be forced to say something intelligent, something that suggests a sense of genuine discernment and taste. Yes, standards have diminished and become watered down by all the panels of experts and a truly new work is hard to find amid the dross. But if history is any judge, there is this ineluctable and comforting truth, that somehow perhaps through some ancient divine decree we are destined never to be without at least one genius, a true artist who learned his/her craft at the foot of the sphinx, and who can see way into the future without losing sight of all that went past; a person who communes with the dead—for the dead know everything. All we need is one. And then we need the collective perspicacity to recognize The One!
When I realized that Shakespeare was born two months after Michelangelo died, I knew that the world would always be saved (that art has redeeming powers is a subject for another time), however close to the brink it teetered! All we need to do is stay alert lest the savior vanish into the desert! Otherwise Gray’s words will continue to haunt us:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.