Hidden dangers of naked ambition

The Economy of Prestige
January 20, 2006

Howard Davies considers whether awards corrupt the creative process

In any one year, more than 9,000 awards are on offer for feature films - rather more than the total number of films made. We are familiar with the Oscars, of which there are rather a lot (Marlon Brando used one of his as a doorstop), but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Below the waterline, we find a bewildering variety of prizes and categories. Right at the bottom, so to speak, there is even a bauble for the "Best Anal Sex Scene".

The literary and art worlds are not quite so profligate. But there has been similar award inflation in recent years. Time was when the Booker was the beginning and end of the list. Now there are Whitbreads and Oranges, too. There are Turners, alternative Turners and now an anti-Turner - the Jerwood Prize for Painting. Indeed, prizes for "worst this" and "most ridiculous that" have become almost as common as the real thing.

Before we smile too smugly at this orgy of self-congratulation, let us not forget the university awards - promoted by The Times Higher , no less. There were only 13 of them last year, a miserly one for every eight or nine universities, but no doubt they will breed, given time. And there is already the obligatory "lifetime achievement award" for those who qualify for none of the above.

James English, who professes his surname at the University of Pennsylvania, has documented this remarkable flowering of decorations and asked himself what its significance might be. Do awards affect the behaviour of artists themselves? When crafting a novel, conceptualising an installation or choreographing a steamy sex scene, do artists allow the relevant award criteria to infect the process of creation? Furthermore, does the increasingly global reach of the major prizes make them important transmission mechanisms for cultural values and norms?

Anyone who has had even a peripheral involvement in the awards industry must have reflected for a moment or two on those questions. (I should ask for one offence to be taken into consideration: a decade or so ago I was a Whitbread judge.)

English has reflected longer than most. He has embedded himself in the public history of awards, emerging with a slew of entertaining anecdotes. The Economy of Prestige would certainly be a powerful candidate for "Best Cuttings-based Cultural Awards Survey" of this or any other year. He also emerges with a couple of ideas that are well worth consideration. Unfortunately, he is unlikely to reach a shortlist, or even a longlist, for the "Best-Written Popular Academic Treatise of the Year" award.

Perhaps we may excuse "the sheer enormity of Nobel's fortune", but phrases such as "littered with awkwardly redundant consecrations" yield little in the way of meaning, and when English tells us that his approach "represents what I propose as a superior optic to anything currently available in the literature of prizes", we can only wish that Harvard University Press had not run out of blue pencils.

But if we peer through what is not so much a superior optic as a glass darkly, what do we find?

The central contention is that much traditional cultural analysis, by focusing either on a close reading of the text, or on broad cultural currents, misses out a large field of activity. It ignores the influence of arts endowments, arts administrators and cultural awards. In English's view, "unless we begin to examine some of these neglected agents and instruments of cultural exchange, we cannot hope to discern reliably the ways in which the games of culture have changed".

To plug this gap, he adopts and adapts Pierre Bourdieu's concepts of capital and field using a very broad definition of capital to include the type of recognition, both financial and reputational, that prizes convey.

In this sense, prizes should be seen as "the single best instrument for negotiating transactions between cultural and economic, cultural and social, or cultural and political capital - which is to say that they are our most effective institutional agents of capital intraconversion".

So all those involved in the prize industry are engaged in a complex set of interactions, whereby one form of capital may be converted into another. On this terrain the "imperial forces of commerce" and the "forces of genuine art" do battle, with uncertain and unpredictable outcomes.

Artists themselves are often wary of taking part in this struggle. Some decline to do so, refusing to submit work to be judged or refusing proffered prizes (relatively rare these days), or - more commonly - accepting with a bad grace. John Berger's disobliging Booker winner's rant of 30 years ago has spawned many imitators, although Gwyneth Paltrow was famously not among them as she sobbed through her Oscar acceptance. English argues that Berger and others play into the hands of the prize organisers. Nothing enhances the capital of an award so reliably as a curmudgeonly winner, whether or not she formally accepts the cheque.

So writers and artists and film-makers are in the field of battle, intraconverting away with the worst of them, whether they like it or not. Indeed, they always have been. English traces the prize culture back to classical Athens. But has the recent proliferation and the increasing influence of commercial interests altered the balance of forces decisively? Have the terms of trade turned against "genuine art"?

Here English hedges his bets. It is, perhaps, too soon to tell. Another few decades of Turners, Pulitzers and Man Bookers may yield enough data points to sustain a more detailed assessment. There is material here for PhD theses aplenty in the coming decades. I expect to be awarding a purple hood and gown before too long for "Cultural Capital Intraconversion in Theory and Practice: The Evolution of Anal Sex in the American Cinema, 1990-2005".

Howard Davies is director, London School of Economics.

The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value

Author - James F. English
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 409
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 674 01884 2

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