The prize of desperation

3_1466I’m going to go out on a limb and say something that will probably get me branded an elitist, a staunch defender of the status quo. I don’t like this big new art prize.

I am talking about the ArtPrize [sic.], the “radically open” art competition with the greatest payout in history: $250,000 for the winner ($100,000 for the runner-up) in an American Idol-style contest based on voting by the general public. It’s being funded by a well-meaning young gentleman named Rick DeVos, who won a contest of a different sort — genetic — and leveraged his inherited fortune with entrepreneurial feats of his own. The contestants will register online, ship their work to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the rest will be up to the good folks who happen to be in town during an exhibitionpalooza weekend event where the voting takes place.

So what’s wrong with this picture? I can think of four things.

First, I have nothing against discovering those hidden diamonds in our midst (I, too, watched the Laura Boyle video and got misty-eyed), but public polling is not the best way to reward human accomplishment. The Olympics, the Nobel, or the Pulitzer Prizes are earned in arduous, sometimes lifelong ordeals of jumping over physical and mental hurdles. Judgment by juries and peers has a lot to do with the authority of these awards. It is, I think, a measure of our confused relationship with art if we believe that the general public is better equipped to judge the work of artists than professional juries or peers. Would we pick heart surgeons this way? Architects? Firemen? The ArtPrize reminds me of Komar and Melamid’s spoof surveys of the desirable aesthetic traits of art. Do you like your art fridge-size or TV-size? Check box A or B.

Second, we already have a system for recognizing meritorious artists, and it is frayed and economically challenged. Rather than creating yet another channel of art-world mobility, how about improving what we have? The funds going into this publicity stunt could help many worthy workshops of artistic production and debate, in Michigan or elsewhere. In recent years we have been hearing a lot about the corrupted mechanisms of professional selection in the visual arts. Schools, galleries, museums—all have been accused of being tainted by careerism and greed. Yes, money corrupts. But I see a greater threat in populism than in the lure of fame and riches. And if the lure of fame and riches is was what broke the art world, why would a highly publicized and extremely lucrative award offer an alternative?

Third, it is almost certain that the artist identified through the ArtPrize will never make it into the art-world big leagues. I predict pop and fizzle. There is no vast mass-culture audience waiting for the winner to ascend the ladder of celebrity. This is not going to be the case of the cell phone salesman who sells two million copies of his opera album. I don’t see Larry Gagosian clamoring to sign up the lucky winner. The money is nice, but what will be the ultimate impact on the winner?

Fourth, and last, I detect an odor of desperation emanating from the new prize. It reminds me of those Depression era kissing contests where hopeful couples smooched for days until they collapsed. It relies on the kind of desperation that drives someone to audition for America’s Top Model, or to buy a lottery ticket. None of this augurs well for the winner’s chances of earning lasting artistic recognition, any more than kissing contests predicted long-lasting blissful marriages.

6 thoughts on “The prize of desperation”

  1. I could not agree with Andras’ sentiments more, and here I want to defend the fact that they are, indeed, and proudly, “elitist.” Anyone familiar with Fareed Zakaria’s book ‘The Future of Freedom’ will recall that ‘direct democracy’ is not a virtue in and of itself; and any democracy that comes without a stable and impartial judiciary is really no democracy at all–it’s simply tyranny of a different sort. Now, that notion of an ‘impartial judiciary’ is not easily imported into the ecosystem of the art world, but it is an ideal towards which we can all strive, albeit always partially and imperfectly (such is humanity). What the art prize does (like so much reality TV, as Andras points out) is exchange judgment for popularity; and popularity is, by definition, partial, self-interested and fickle. We do not rely upon popular, direct democratic means to adjudicate trials and lawsuits; no one’s guilt or innocence is decided by SMS text. Yes, we have jury trials, but these are heavily mediated by lawyers and judges, by ‘due process’ and ‘civil procedure’–i.e. by a robust ‘expertise’ that resides in the people and the institutions to which we necessarily entrust our civic life. Were all this left directly to ‘the people’ alone, we would find ourselves in a Hobbsian world indeed. Yet this is exactly where we are, to some extent, in an art world in which popularity replaces impartial judgment. In an art world where everyone’s opinion matters equally, it is very much a battle of all against all; and in an art world where anything and everything ‘goes’ (though we know this isn’t really the case, since some things go for more than others), as Charlie Finch once noted, most art will “suck.” We need experts, a.k.a. elites, and we have them, in the artists, critics, curators, collectors, educators and dealers whose very work, which means whose very livelyhood (and often paltry ones at that), it is to make, think, write and speak about art in all of its manifestations. The art prize is an insult, not just to these people, but to the very idea of expertise. One may think it harmless, even cheeky and fun, but that’s because it’s the bunny slope; it’s for beginners. Yes, everyone’s a beginner of something sometime, but we don’t (or rather we shouldn’t) hand out prizes for it.

  2. OK, so I have to play devil’s advocate here on two fronts.

    The first one is rather frivolous, admittedly, but…Jonathan, would this prize be less of an insult if the award were not more than most artists who devote their entire lives to making work will see from sales in their life time? If that’s the issue, at what prize level does the insult subside? We hand out prizes from Kindergarten on up in the States, so bunny slope or not, I suspect it’s the amount of cash that’s so offensive here, not the idea of a prize itself, no?

    Secondly, and more seriously though, the judiciary in a democracy is elected or appointed by elected officials, so there is still a means by which the populace can influence who the judges are to some degree. The judges in the art world are largely self-appointed, and their influence is often directly proportional to how much money they can afford to spend on influencing others. This needs to be accounted for in supporting the elitist position, IMO.

    I’m not so interested in populism (as opposed to elitism), per se, but I have to admit to being highly intrigued with art that straddles both worlds effectively. I don’t think the elitist stranglehold on fine art is sustainable. None the least of which is because some of its most adamant advocates, those for whom there are rules…a right and a wrong way to think about or make art…are increasingly among its least influential experts. Something in this equation is bound to break.

  3. The (monetary) size of the prize had not actually occurred to me, though, of course, it is quite a lot isn’t it. But my objection has nothing to do with what the prize is but the process of its administration; what it is, money, of course has everything to do with why we’re hearing about it. But I assure you, I would object to it all the same were popularity pure and simple the end to which it was oriented. Decrease the purse and this conversation would never have been incited, but this does not change my position, which (I hope) stands on principle. We do hand out prizes for simply showing up (or from “Kindergarten on up” as you say); that, exactly, is the problem.

    Yes, I take your point about the intersection of the judiciary and the legislature (though everything here lies in that phrase: “to some degree”; and isn’t the problem that we’ve seen too much popularity, in the form of partisanship, find its way into the appointment of our judges?). My point is that there is a long process of education and training that comes with the ascension to the position of one who judges, ideally impartially. And if your self-appointed judges of the art world are swinging the vote with the coffers they control, then it would seem that we’re in total agreement about the kinds of people we believe SHOULD be positions to adjudicate the value and importance of the culture on offer. In my thinking, “elite” is not synonymous with “wealth.” Just because you can buy the robes doesn’t mean you should get to wear them.

    I think this comes down to a confusion over what we’re thinking of as “elite,” which is why I’ve been pushing the word “expertise.” Such expertise does not have to be sought through sanctioned institutions or conventional educations or at the behest of monied interests. It does, however, have to be demonstrated. And to risk serious criticism, I do think that there is a right and a wrong way to think about and to make art: the right way is thoughtfully, seriously, (self-) reflexively and smartly; the wrong way is capriciously, indulgently, (self-) satisfiedly and stupidly.

  4. This just in from ArtPrize founder, Rick DeVos.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about ArtPrize. I wanted to take some time to respond with some comments and clarifications. The concern you have shared is something we have anticipated since we began planning ArtPrize. It’s part of a much larger and longer conversation and debate of “the public” vs. “the professionals” and what their roles are in our hyperconnected, rapidly evolving world and has extended from the invention of Gutenberg’s press to the rise of services like Wikipedia, Youtube, and Digg. That said, I’d like to address your concerns on a slightly different level and from a slightly different perspective than I think some people are approaching ArtPrize.

    First of all, I want to be very clear that ArtPrize makes absolutely no claims on our prize being “better” or “more real” or anything above any of the myriad other professionally juried and judged shows and events. We’re just different. Those professional events are all important things, but we’re trying something different that involves the public in a different way. Professionals and professionalism play a critical role in the global art conversation, and they will play a very important role in ArtPrize by curating venues, educating, and guiding a receptive public. Why will the public be receptive? Because they have an actual, tangible role in the outcome.

    I think it’s important to realize that from our perspective, when it comes down to it ArtPrize isn’t really about giving a prize to an artist, but giving the general public a reason to sit up, pay attention to art and artists and give feedback to them. That attention of ArtPrize in general will translate more specifically into a huge amount of engagement with many different artists with many different perspectives and kinds of work. Create the crowd, and then guide and teach them. That’s really, really exciting to me and to all of us working on ArtPrize.

    As for the whole idea of the general public being able to give feedback, again I think it’s important to look at it for a different perspective—the public is already giving feedback in hundreds of different ways. They’re giving attention, word of mouth, money, or withholding all of those to give feedback on what they like and don’t like. What we are trying to do with ArtPrize is to gather, organize, and feed back that information in the context of a 2.5 week event and in a way that sparks conversation, debate, and overall education and awareness.

    ArtPrize is about creating incentives—incentives to engage directly with the public, incentives to educate the public, incentives to find the best venue and best possible way in which to display your work, incentives to work collaboratively with others on specific work or as individuals within spaces, shows, even entire districts. We have intentionally left the rules and framework open to allow innovative relationships and arrangements to flourish. We can’t wait to see what people come up with.

    This is our first year. We are going to learn a lot, and going to be able to share that learning with you and the world. I would just ask you to keep an open mind as we work on this. We’re definitely open to help and constructive feedback.

  5. Will artists that we consider good artists participate in this thing? What kind of work would do well in such an environment? Will the winner be an artist who is actively trying to engage the voting audience with her work, or through social networking? Or will the winner be some earnest, isolated solitary genius, too shy or too broke or too responsible to ever make it to school or to New York, LA or a major art center to vie for the eyes of those who can deliver a professional career. Id rather think about that than listen to intelligent people become parental figures discussing what kind of reward system should be in place for an artist. I don’t see why the desire to make work that pleases a general populace of a place like Grand Rapids should be any less valid than a desire to make work that aims for creating discomfort or challenges or whatever some of what passes these days as a critical practice within a validating context. Certainly the challenges are at a similar level, and one does not leave out the other possibility.

    This is certainly less offensive to my sensibilities than much of what is offered as ‘education’ in institutional settings, museums that should know better, dumbing down topics to try to engage public, and even trustees to be more involved.

    I don’t think it is so healthy to exaggerate the dangers just because somebody gives money to a purpose other than our own circle. I believe that some photography is art and some not, I believe that we will discover cultural and artistic value in other forms that we have yet to imagine. We have managed to sort lots of populist challenges to what we consider of cultural value. There is plenty of room for something like this. If it gives some kid who never heard of art before a spark that takes her to more interesting places, there is value to our own future.

    I understand the position in the argument that funds should be diverted to aid existing projects very clearly, but it is a deeply flawed argument when it is taken out in response to an individual project when the problem is endemic, rather than used as part of a sales pitch to a better idea.

    I guess I always have been a populist at heart. It is tied to my sense of freedom. Participation in this project is not for me, as I have been very lucky with my hard work, but I can imagine another time, other circumstances?? With the size of the prize, there could be some interesting things in this exhibition. Maybe, maybe not.

  6. This just in from Andrew Taylor, Director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration:

    It’s pretty clear that ArtPrize is NOT about identifying a great artist who will then benefit from the credential. Rather, it’s a big carrot to lure artists with money and attention, and lure locals and regionals to Grand Rapids to engage in the conversation. It’s a systemic intervention. And I think it’s a really interesting one. The artists will likely benefit. The city will benefit. The art world will benefit from more attention from the general public than generally allotted.

    As DeVos says, it’s not intended to replace or retire the traditional closed, connected, and self-regarding processes that credential great works or great artists.

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