Arts Awards – Really About Excellence?

In a conversation about the Tony Awards this week, someone said, “I expected you would blog about it.” It had never occurred to me to write about the Tonys. It’s not that I don’t care about Broadway, it’s just that I don’t have much to say about them. I do not see much New York theatre, so I can’t really comment on the comparative quality of the shows. I didn’t watch the awards live, so I can’t comment on the show itself, except those portions I watched on You Tube.

What I can comment on is the idea of awards in the arts. How can you be against recognition of excellence—if that’s what the awards are? And there are some: the Pulitzer Prize comes to mind. As does the Booker Prize, and, of course, the Nobel Prize. But then there are those awards that come with nationally televised presentations and lots of advertising: the Tonys and certainly the Academy Awards.

Unfortunately these sorts of awards are subject to heavy campaigning in the media. This, of course, has to do with the privilege of being able to put “Winner of x number of some kind of award” in the advertising for the play or the movie in question. So the awards become something other than recognition of excellence.

Now I am not naïve enough to presume that no politics enter into deciding the awards in other arts, but it seems to me that they are less subject to advertising and activism. At least the jockeying for prizes, if there is such, is much better concealed from the public.

What I object to about such awards is not that they are used for financial gain. Film and theatre are, after all, produced in order to make money. Hopefully there is some art along the way, but the ultimate goal is financial, and awards help producers reach that goal. What I do object to is that heavily publicized awards seem to turn their respective arts into contests; that is what art is not.

The result of the most recent contest is that The Book of the Mormon and War Horse have become more marketable commodities. However winning multiple Tony Awards did not cause them to become suddenly more accessible as works of art. The upside is that more people now know about the productions, and potentially more people will see them. The downside is that the publicity will attract detractors and uninformed criticism, some of which will be the result of attendance by those who are not ready for the art of these two shows.

The role of the audience in any theatrical production (or any art) is not completely passive. You have to bring something to it, if you are to fully enjoy it. And often the more you can bring, the richer will be your experience.

Art is not easy. It seems that the better the art is, the more that is required from the viewer, and the less appeal to a mass audience it has. Many artists work very hard to make their meanings clear. Some artists, on the other hand, work very hard at making meanings obscure and allusions oblique. Neither approach guarantees the intended audience will appreciate that meaning or its expression. Neither does the winning of awards.

It may be elitist, but it is true that to be able to access to the very best art, one must have some education and background. This is hardly the case with mass-marketable commodities, which is what the highly publicized awards attempt to create.

Unfortunately for those trying to commoditize it, art is difficult. And worth it.

Date: Sunday, 19. June 2011 23:59
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Quality, Theatre

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  1. 1

    Interesting piece. However, I don’t agree that education and background are necessary in order to access the best art. I’ve seen small children, who have neither of those, gravitate to some of the “best art” shown in museums. True art speaks as much to the soul as to the intellect. And yes, awards would ideally be given for excellence alone in any field, but in life, as you say, there are often a lot of other elements that enter into the mix. If an artist finds that unsettling, it’s probably best for him to ignore awards altogether.

  2. 2

    You make a good point. Perhaps access is the wrong word or needs a modifier; perhaps fully access or appreciate would have been better. I have no doubt that true art speaks to people without reference to their education and experience; however, who of us has not had the experience of reading a novel or play in high school, then reading the same piece as an adult only to find that the work had so much more meaning than we had suspected and was, in fact, the work of art that the teacher had claimed it to be?

    As you note, many things come into play when awards are given, and as I said, I do not object to awards being given; what I object to is that some awards tend to turn art into a contest, and with that I have problems.

    I would not presume to tell any individual artist how to respond to an award. Each situation is different. Some artists have indeed ignored awards, or declined them, or refused to accept them. But each person has to make up his/her own mind.

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