• Ideas
  • May 04, 2020

Op-ed: Melt All the Trophies

Illustration by pixabay.com user mohamed_hassan.

The phenomenon of the art prize should not survive the coronavirus pandemic. Giving more money and acclaim to someone because they are deemed better than everyone else is a classic example of pre-Covid-19 thinking. It follows a pervasive neoliberal logic that masquerades as meritocratic while concealing the inequitable foundations and structures that grant success only to a few. These days almost everyone needs more cash than they have to get by—especially the many artists whose opportunities have been canceled, deferred, or, to use the favorite phrase of the moment, “postponed indefinitely.” The only people who currently aren’t strapped for cash are those who have been successful for the past decade—in other words, the ones who prospered through a rapacious, inequitable time. 

Even before the pandemic, the model of giving a prize to the “best artist” had started to collapse in on itself at the end of the last decade. In the most dramatic instance, the four nominees for the 2019 Turner Prize requested that the jury split the award in order to make a “collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity—in art as in society.” If we are to think of artists as individuals who exemplify what it means to be human, then how could we choose one person’s work over another’s? How do you even begin to compare or to judge?

It wasn’t just nominated artists who had started to reject the logic of art prizes. In December 2019, the jury of the Huayu Emerging Art Award, in Sanya, Hainan, led by M+’s Sigg Collection senior curator, Pi Li, unanimously decided that none of the ten artists under 35 years of age deserved the Jury Prize, sparking a controversy and many open letters and conversations debating the fairness and the point of the whole exercise. Though composed of high-profile curators and established artists, the jury was evidently perplexed, finding the young artists’ works “different” but somehow not “new.” It appeared that the elders had thrown up their hands in exasperation at what the kids were up to. 

The reality is that prizes are never really about the winner. They primarily reflect, and benefit, the organization that gives the awards. Albert Nobel, who made his fortune from inventing dynamite and other armaments, concocted his own prize to honor “peace” and other humanist achievements in order to whitewash his own name before he died. The Oscars, given by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, were conceived of by Louis B. Mayer, of the film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, in 1927 as an attempt to smooth over film industry tensions in order to avoid collective action and unionization by writers, actors, and directors. (Hollywood creatives organized nonetheless several years later, once the Great Depression came along.)

There is also the more timeless and universal reality that most art prizes are based on no fixed criteria at all, and that behind closed doors the jury often devises its own justifications for whatever internal politics or agendas are at play. The winner can be chosen—or not chosen—based on their career, their works, their politics, their identity, their personality, or for some other reason entirely. For instance, a few years ago, a jury member on a prestigious international art prize admitted to me that they had selected the winning artist because that artist was the least recognized of the shortlisted artists. Since they didn’t have gallery representation, they needed the prize money more than the other nominees. It felt like a subversive decision considering the clout of the sponsoring organizations, but it also meant that none of the shortlisted artists’ works nor their many achievements were really considered at all. 

Now that some parts of the world are in the eye of the coronavirus storm, it seems misguided to revert to the way things were. Nothing seems more symbolically wrong, and egregiously tone-deaf, than surveying a field of dedicated cultural professionals—all of whom have lost opportunities and may be struggling to make ends meet—only to say that just one of them deserves a more significant amount of money and recognition. That would be like the government looking at all the industries suddenly in crisis and choosing to only bail out one. Oh wait.

HG Masters is the deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.

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