The prize of desperation
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.