The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value by James F. English

If you’ve read Ian McEwan, then surely you’ve heard of the Booker Prize — England’s most coveted book award. But you might not be aware that behind the lucrative Booker prize sits the Booker Brothers — imperialist sugar-producers once negatively associated with British colonialism in the Caribbean. Exxon/Mobil, once primarily known for oil spills and other acts of inadvertent environmental terrorism, are now the quaint sponsors of Masterpiece Theater and numerous cultural awards. And today, Alfred Nobel’s name is more apt to conjure up the greatest authors, scientists and humanists in history, rather than the 19th century munitions-maker’s unglamorous brainchild, dynamite. According to James English’s often groundbreaking findings in The Economy of Prestige, these are some of the most fashionable (and effective) ways in which cultural prizes are often wielded by the power elite: using the humanist ambiance and “symbolic” value that resonate from cultural awards as little more than a profitably diversionary PR tactic.

Without passing any sort of overt judgment on cultural prizes themselves, English instead provides some illuminating research on the driving forces behind the 20th century proliferation of awards, delineating the local and global consequences of this long-understudied and misunderstood practice. English does much to demystify the complex web of social, political, and economic exchanges that have shaped the rise of cultural competition as sport: from purely festal beginnings in proto-democratic ancient Greece, to the 17th and 18th Century exaltation (and naturally, bureaucratization) of art and artists, on through the 20th Century birth of the Nobel Prize — catalyst of virtually every cultural award and anti-award that’s surfaced in the last century.

English approaches his topic with a postmodernist critic’s eye, viewing the world of cultural prizes through the monocle of French theorist Pierre Bourdieu: he often deploys Bourdieu’s own terminology (when speaking of the “consecration” of artists, for example), and defines the cultural awards racket in terms of absence and illusion, or as Baudrillaud or Macherey might say (with a thumbs-up and a wink), it’s “a manipulation of signs that takes the place of an absent reality.” This po-mo reasoning naturally leads to English’s recurring references to the “collective make-believe” that artist, press, and general public must (and do) perpetuate in order for awards to potently function as “symbolic capital,” in an increasingly de-industrialized, “weightless” economy.

English’s advancements in the woefully thin discourse on cultural prizes are many; but his most crucial breakthrough may be the complicit role he sees in high-profile critics of awards (or those behind anti-award awards like the Razzies), whose insults are actually essential to perpetuating “prize frenzy.” And this is where Bourdieu again rears his bereted head, as English speaks of the “styles of condescension” that play an important role in the symbolic empowerment of cultural prizes. And considering there’s little difference today between good and bad publicity, clued-in anti-awards critics, often prizewinners themselves, engage in public naysaying that simply fuels the hype machine. And in this way the scandal-dependent prizes — like say, the Booker — stay relevant in the eyes of an increasingly controversy-hungry media and the public at large.

Question is, can we detect any real hope from English’s study that this all-powerful “collective make-believe” will ever be dispelled? Well, it’s easy to assume the idea of cultural value will probably be around as long as we all play the “game”: as long as we need celebrity and believe in the illusion of larger-than-life artists who produce illusory cultural worth, and there are culturally-credentialed judges and administrators willing to complete this mass fantasy by deeming an artist “fit” for canonization or public deification.

English gives convincing examples of how these collective illusions of cultural worth can be legitimately threatened; but as of yet, no gesture has seriously jeopardized the practice of culturally prestigious gifting. The British K foundation’s “Worst Artist” award offer cash prizes comparable to the prestigious Turner Prize for visual art, thus challenging the accepted logic of big bucks equals prestige for an award and its recipient. He also pursues a new angle on the scandal surrounding Toni Morrison’s unabashed lobbying for the Nobel Prize: English recounts how many critics, Chris Hitchens in particular, scolded Morrison for, essentially, not buying into the satisfying illusion of the artist as garret-dwelling loner saint. But English sees Morrison’s self-promotion as a show of brutal honesty, and a break in the rules of the game — an admittance that, like it or not, we live in an increasingly credential-obsessed society, and a place in the canon is becoming more and more dependent on such “frivolous” awards. But apart from these occasional breaks with business-as-usual in the awards game, English sees the award-business as having practically limitless potential for hegemonic expansion.

Assessing the subtly potent global workings of cultural value, English devotes his final two chapters to analyzing the way in which cultural prizes can function as nationalistic publicity tools, bringing important symbolic capital to a particular country and its artists. Or in the case of Japan’s Praemium Imperiale, an award has managed to further a nationalist PR agenda while championing foreign artists. But more importantly, English explains how major transnational awards, the Nobel in particular, have begun to function as powerful tools of globalization. The Nobel is able to bring “indigenous” art from all corners of the earth under the umbrella of “world” culture without regard for any “national” acceptance; in other words, these works and artists — controversial Nobel-winning Nigerian Wole Soyinka is the main example used here– come to represent their respective countries on the terms set by the Swedish Academy’s perceived global authority. Not surprisingly, these terms usually have something to do with whether or not the Nobel candidate’s work might appeal to white Europeans.

English does, however, investigate a few avenues that dead-end; there’s an entire chapter on the physical manifestations of a given award — an exploration that spirals off into the actual monetary worth of the plaques, statuettes, and trophies themselves. English then winds his way to the not-so-revelatory idea that an “award-winning” tag will create more symbolic value and translate into bigger sales for less inherently commercial products. He argues that, contrary to Bourdieu’s predictions, “sheer commercial value” is now less likely to be equated with cultural worth.

This is a fairly convincing argument, for now. However, with the emergence of up-and-coming wannabes like the Quill Award (for the most popular book, no less), you have to wonder how long it will be before, as Bourdieu predicted, the bestseller will be consecrated just as often as “difficult” work. And it’s on this issue that English’s usual meticulousness lapses into generalization. Simply citing the scarcity of award-winning books on the bestseller lists may not be enough to detect certain escalating trends. The lines between “art” and “commerce” do get pretty blurred when you consider the smashing million-selling success of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex. Or more appropriately, when a middling potboiler-disguised-as-literature — Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay comes to mind — nabs a Pulitzer for fiction, watch out. The post-millennium cultural climate is one in which (Pulitzer-winning) Maureen Dowd is routinely compared to Dorothy Parker, so who knows? Maybe Candace Bushnell will be up next for literary consecration.

And what to make of Michael Jackson’s 250 assorted awards and prizes (all listed here, including, ironically, the Children’s Choice Award), or Steven Spielberg’s 90 or so awards (more than John Ford and Hitchcock combined)? Certainly in the case of those two world-renowned figures the lines between “sheer commercial value” and symbolic value can be somewhat distorted. True, the awards game will always be in mired in questions of taste and subjectivity; but in the case of Michael Jackson at least, one can assume there must be corrosive mental and physical effects that come from simply too damn many awards.