We don’t sort art, it sorts us. Which piece of art tops the list says less about the quality of the art than who made the list.
Oscar Nominations came out last week, raising their usual mixture of fawning and foul-crying. The naysayers make their case for deserving artists who were ignored. The faithful nod their heads, waiting anxiously for the list of the lucky ones to be handed down. Meanwhile, the artists themselves seem ashamed about the whole dirty business. What do these shiny statuettes really signify?
The process of handing out awards seems rigged by a lack of veracity inherent to its own nature. Awards are decided by committee, through discussion. Except consideration of quality presents diminishing returns when taken up with immediate concerns. The usefulness of qualitative criteria tends to have an inverse relation to the immediate use one is putting to it. Or in other words, if discussion happens “for its own sake, outside time” then good things come, but if there is a definite needfulness attached to the criteria by which one judges, then that needfulness rules over all. (Even the most useful things were once just ideas being tinkered over in a workshop; we didn’t know we needed them until someone told us we did.) As the anointed ones of a given cultural moment make lists of nominees, which inevitably giving way to canon, discussion ends and a spirit of competition antithetical to the creative spirit sets in. And cool heads have never prevailed in a room-full of artists and multi-millionaires.
All of this is doubled and trebled when comparing quality across genre. Here we’re presented with the difficulty of saying whether a romantic comedy evokes warm, romantic feeling as well as a horror movie evokes terror. Rather than comparing how a given piece of art evokes a given emotion, we end by comparing the emotions themselves. It’s not that these judgments are wrong--warm, romantic feelings are nicer than terror. But they’re the wrong judgments; making a decision between romance and terror was never our task. We end with some genres, the more “noble” ones, coming out ahead.
The worst example of these artistic horse races, much worse than the Oscars, was the Modern Library’s “100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century.” Remember that? This was the ultimate example of a play at authority amounting to an immediate lack of usefulness. Of course, since we were at the end of a century we had to decide what we liked best. But exactly who got to decide that The Magnificent Ambersons was the 100th greatest novel of the 20th century? Some people argued that, well, it’s not an exact science and isn’t meant to be taken that way. The Modern Library is just speaking generally. But “the 100th Greatest Novel," not the 99th or the 101st, which is what “100th Best” means, always sounded pretty un-general to me.
None of this is new. People say it every year around awards season, yet the award system thrives. Years laters, after a particular award season is over, actual critical consideration begins again, and we come back to the fact that the only thing outside of the process of understanding art is the art itself. We don’t sort art, it sorts us. Which piece of art tops the list says less about the quality of the art than who made the list. The shiny statuettes are shaped like human beings, because they signify the very human process by which they are awarded.
As a way to figure out who we are and what is important to us, culturally-speaking, awards have a kind of use. But this use can only be truly interpreted outside this process, outside that cultural moment. Those who exist outside the process of award-making, who either through time or inclination have turned their backs on a culture and who really don’t care about their awards, are the ones who really can say who should be awarded.
But even then, the higher up one goes in quality of art, the less and less the spirit of competition seems to prevail. Doesn’t it seem to be the case that the better a piece of art is, the more distinct it is from every other? Then why do we insist upon judging pieces of art based upon how distinct they are, according to degrees of comparative criteria? Finally, it becomes like saying the Pieta weighs more than the Venus de Milo.
So The Godfather is a “greater” film than Casablanca, (or not). Who cares? Do we watch films because they are great or because they are good?