Best of…

With the beginning of the year come the inevitable superlative lists of the year past which include lots of things, including the arts. You can find lists of the highest paid musicians, the highest paid visual artists, the most paid for an art work, the best movies, the best songs (in all categories), the best photographs, the best new whatever or whomever. Americans, at least, seem obsessed with “best-of’s.” There are even best of best of lists.

And, of course, most of these lists will evaporate just like New Year’s resolutions and mean about as much. Some will have impact, e.g. when a list of best movies is tied to this or that award, it means more money for the investors and perhaps a larger paycheck for the star on his/her next project. And some will even provide the winner with a plaque or trophy to display.

The impulse to look back and evaluate a past block of time is understandable. What is troubling about at least some of the lists that have been recently published, however, is the “small print,” or more accurately, the invisible print. Some organizations are up-front about what the rules and criteria are. The Academy Awards, for example, have page after page on rules and eligibility. The Golden Globe Awards do not seem as transparent, given the controversy over Scarlett Johansson’s ineligibility this year for her performance in Spike Jonze’s Her.

Many lists come with no apparent rules at all, but it doesn’t take long to discover the bias of the compiler. For instance, many “best photographs of the year” lists have crossed my newsreader screen in the last week and a half. Although some are travel images, most of them are really “best photojournalism of 2013” lists. The notable exception is Rangefinder Magazine, where the editors compiled several lists, and often organized those lists into categories.

There is certainly nothing wrong with photojournalism; it has produced some of the most memorable images ever made. What is wrong, at least in my mind, is to suggest, even by implication, that photojournalism comprises the totality of excellent photography created within a 12-month span.

Aside from the need to summarize the past, I suspect that the impulse to incorporate art works into lists are bragging rights—the ability to be able to claim that the compiler was the first to recognize the worth of a work that becomes iconic at some future date. But some of the most iconic works of art didn’t receive the prizes they were up for. Case in point: Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did not win the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The lack of the award did not prevent the play from being one of the best of the twentieth century.

It is certainly a good feeling to appear on a list of winners, whether it is the list of those accepted to a juried show, or the list of those who won an award of some sort or a list of the best whatevers of whatever year.  But it’s not why we do what we do. It is doubtful that Scarlett Johansson took the role in her, thinking she might get a Golden Globe, just as it’s a stretch to believe that Albee sat down to write Virginia Woolf with a Pulitzer in mind. We make our art to say what we have to say in the best way we know how to say it using the best tools we have. Sometimes we make it onto a list; mostly we don’t. That’s just fine.

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Date: Monday, 13. January 2014 0:30
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Criticism, Photography

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