Prizes for artists are generally deemed a good thing; a company or individual provides a sum of money effectively so that an artist can keep going. The donor receives great PR, maybe a tax deduction, maybe some arty friends, and perhaps a calmer conscience. The artist receives some cash, maybe an exhibition of some sort, and a line on their CV. Frankly, not a bad deal. Monetary amounts, specific conditions and eligibility vary from prize to prize, but essentially most respected art prizes in Australia and abroad take the same form: an application or nomination process, a shortlist, an exhibition, a jury, and the announcement of a winner.
The message prizes deliver is quite clear: art, like all other industries, is about competition. It is about distinction, categorisation, judgement and suspense (anxiety, precarity, accumulation). It is also about the advancement of the one via a process that invokes the many. Crudely put: you don’t succeed by banding together; you succeed by beating the rest. Within the rubric of prize giving (not dissimilar to the carrot-dangling technique), art becomes yet another mode for distilling winners from losers according to socially-accepted rules. Still, unlike other arenas, in art the criteria for adjudication are not always clear, are not supposed to be commonly understood, and do not have to be widely accepted. Far from the argument of elitism (unlike the so-called science of economics), it seems this is because the whole point of art is the creation of something that is impossible to know before, which is ‘beyond’ existing capacities, which is what German philosopher Christoph Menke might call ‘inventive without goal’.1
What has always set artistic creation apart from other modes of production is that there actually are no criteria for judgment (which prizes tacitly enforce). Arguably, this point has never been taken to its logical extent because art is always contained within modes of valorisation and classification pertaining to other fields, such as economy. Money prizes are a case in point. One rightfully wonders why access to money should be the gauge of whether someone is a winner or not, generally speaking; and whether art workers really want to validate and reproduce a model where the few increasingly trump the many.
We’re not talking cents, prizes can and do touch the $100,000+ mark, significantly more than the average artist’s annual salary.2 One prime example of what I’m trying to articulate is the home webpage of the Basil Sellers Art Prize. The image indicates very clearly the nature of the beast: a scrum of conservatively dressed white people grapple for a trophy in what looks like an art gallery, while one lone, generic sign for artwork (a large, white canvas) hangs silently in the background. In fact anything but silent, this canvas tells everything. It reminds us that in this context, at least, what art says or does, the power it could possess, it’s force to go ‘beyond’, is irrelevant, muted. For here it has already metaphorically surrendered, it is the white flag raised in the background, the fait accompli of what is socially appropriate.3
This photograph literally represents the unquestionable position that of course sport (another word for ‘competition’, in practice and as the organising principle of our society) is the foreground of society and culture. For not only is competition naturally where the money (value) is, it is also the schema where accepted processes of social validation are found and where the moralising principle of winners and losers plays out. This image goes so far as to suggest that art would be all the better off were it just a little bit more like sport and, dutifully, art agrees, taking its proper place as decorative mis-en-scène. Here, art is reduced to a sports mascot and the goal is the easily-identifiable chunk of plastic-y metal, the trophy. With all eyes on the prize, no one notices that something left the room a long time ago. The buck got passed.
Photo: screen-grab from sellersartprize.com.au
1. Christoph Menke’s short essay ‘Aesthetic Equality’, #10 in 100 Notes – 100 Thoughts (dOCUMENTA (13), Hatje Cantz Verlag 2012), outlines very convincingly the difference between socially-acquired and –predetermined capacities, and pre-social, non-relative force. Menke: ‘Capacities make us subjects who successfully partake in social practices. In the play of force, we are presubjective and metasubjective: agents but not subjects; active without self-consciousness; inventive without goal.’ The reference to ‘beyond’ is also from Menke, he writes: ‘While capacities are directed toward achievement, a force has no goal or norm. Force’s activity is play, the production of something that is always already and continually beyond.’ (pp. 14-15)
2. According to the Australia Council survey Don’t give up your day job: An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia (Throsby & Hollister 2003), visual artists earned on average $29,300 per annum, which included creative, arts-related work as well as non-arts related work. Though taken form 2000-01 financial year statistics, it seems things haven’t changed too much since then. In a 2010 interview on ABC’s 7.30 Report, economist David Throsby said: ‘The average income for a fully professional artist is, from their creative work, less than $20,000 a year and in fact more than half of them earn less than $10,000 a year from their creative work.’ (http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2010/s2985771.htm).
3. Menke, ibid. ‘Such acts are aesthetic: acts of play, of imagination. They are acts in which we go beyond our socially acquired abilities and capacities, in which, in other words, we do something we can’t do.’ (pp. 15-16)