How can we judge a painting against a sculpture?
The idea of presenting awards within the arts has always been a faintly ridiculous one. If commercial sales are taken out of the equation, what is the measure of success supposed to be? How can we judge a painting against a sculpture? A punk band against a jazz act? Isn’t the whole point of art supposed to be that it is subjective, and that any parameters or criteria you set to judge it by should be ignored?
This thought process seems to have been dominating the cultural debate over recent weeks.
First, in October 2019, the judges for the Booker Prize For Fiction announced that – for the first time in almost 30 years – the 2019 prize was to be awarded jointly between two authors: Margaret Atwood for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other. This was despite a rule change explicitly stating the prize ‘may not be divided’ following the last instance it was shared, by Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth and 1992.
The chair of the judges judges, Peter Florence, announced however that, ‘Our consensus was… to flout the rules and divide this year’s prize to celebrate two winners… The more we talked about them the more we treasured both of them and wanted them both as winners … We couldn’t separate them.’
Surely, though, that’s the whole point of an awards ceremony – to separate the nominated candidates? ‘We tried voting: that didn’t work,’ continued Florence, adding: ‘There’s a metaphor for our times.’
It may indeed be a wider truth that we have lost faith in the democratic process, but that’s irrelevant here (he did, after all, make pains to point out that the decision was – somewhat paradoxically – an unanimous choice).
More importantly, does it suggest that the very purpose of awards – to recognise and propel the individual – is less relevant when we are increasingly finding that there is more value in recognising collectives solving challenging issues?
That was the impetus behind the second high-profile non-decision: this time for the Turner Prize in November 2019. The 36th annual award was contested between four nominees: Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo and Tai Shani. Although ‘contested’ might not be quite the right word, given that the prize was shared between all four. This time the decision was borne not from indecision but from a conscious request from the nominees that they be considered as a collective rather than as competitors.
Writing jointly to the judges, they stated, ‘At this time of political crisis in Britain and much of the world, when there is already so much that divides and isolates people and communities, we feel strongly motivated to use the occasion of the Prize to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity – in art as in society.’
Alex Farquharson, Director of Tate Britain and chair of the Turner Prize jury, said in response, ‘In coming together and presenting themselves as a group, this year’s nominated artists certainly gave the jury a lot to think about. But it is very much in the spirit of these artists’ work to challenge convention, to resist polarised world views, and to champion other voices. The jury all felt that this made the collective a worthy winner of the Turner Prize.’
This is all undoubtedly laudable. But doesn’t it rather question the entire point of having an award at all? We have already established that it is faintly ridiculous to compare different artistic endeavours as if they are like for like works.
‘A crazy contest between an orange and a spaceship and a potted plant and a spoon’ as singer Anohni – previously known as Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons – described the Mercury Music Prize after winning it in 2005.
If the idea of choosing between nominees is a divisive act, it rather begs the question: why bother?
Is the very concept of awards ceremonies, as BBC arts editor Will Gompertz suggests, ‘an anachronism from a bygone binary age of winners and losers’?
To further extend the binary metaphor – how are music awards now supposed to categorise nominees in an era of non-categorisation? Now that Sam Smith has announced he wants to be addressed with gender-neutral pronouns, doesn’t it put paid to the idea of ‘best male’ and ‘best female’ categories? Similarly, Anohni now identifies as female but was previously considered for male wards as Antony.
But, considering all of the above, how should we recognise achievements in the arts? Perhaps in future ceremonies should adopt the Jools Holland approach, with all nominees appearing in the round to applaud each other equally.
That’s not actually as sarcastic a suggestion as it might appear: the televised 2019 Mercury Music Awards were a vast improvement on previous years by putting the emphasis on performance. Instead of the dry VTs with critics summarising disparate pop careers before the final envelope was opened, the producers opted for something different.
There may still have been tables of industry insiders knocking back champagne and guffawing, but the format was transformed into a gig environment, with each act performing with minimal intro or pomp.
The fact that each was presented with a statuette just for being nominated – and that there was genuine camaraderie between the acts – helped. Witness Slowthai leaving his statuette on set, only for Idles singer Joe Talbot to leap into the audience, hand it back to him and invite him back onto the stage for an impromptu love-in.
It didn’t really matter who won: the evening turned into a celebration of the buoyant, diverse state of music in 2019. And surely that’s the whole point?