Subscribe in a reader

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Competitive Arts

I have been reading lately on Baby Got Books about something called The Tournament of Books at a site called The Morning News. What they do is to set up pairs of books in brackets in imitation of the NCAA basketball format and have judges (I'm not sure what actually qualifies someone as being a judge) decide which book is better. The winner then moves up to the next bracket and the loser is consigned to the dustbin of history.

While on its face this might seem like a rather fun and innocuous pastime, the trouble is that the perpetrators of it forget one thing: Art is not a competition.

Now, of course, they merely represent an entire society that forgets that. We have the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammys, the Tonys, the Bills, the Freds, and the Nancys, none of which really amounts to a pile of warm spit. There are also, the Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Awards, and many other specifically for books. Now, don't get me wrong, if somebody out there wanted to give me a prize, I would gladly show up and give them thanks for loading me up with this tripe. That's just being polite.

Sports, politics, and war are related elements of the human character. The point of each is to win and pursuit of that victory must be total, dogged, and complete. This is why participants in each are always at risk of cheating--whether by taking performance enhancing drugs or tampering with the mechanisms of voting or using biological or chemical weapons or blowing up innocents with car bombs--since winning is everything, it is easy enough to rationalize winning in unethical ways.

However, there is no cheating in art. The point is not to win, but rather to explain, point out, and question. The artist tries to tell the truth or whatever portion of the truth they think they have a grasp on in as palatable a way as they can figure out how to.

Sports and art exist in different worlds. Sports are based in the objective. Either you get more points or the other guy does. Or fewer, depending on the sport. Even that event in the Olympics that mystifies so many men, that part of the gymnastics programs in which young ladies dance around while holding ribbon-bedecked sticks, is a competition with winners and losers who have been judged by an allegedly unbiased panel of experts. Despite the inherent subjectivity of being rated, there are still specific things that must be done and no amount of stylistic flourishes will compensate for falling off the mat or bumping into a spectator.

Art lives in the subjective. While a consensus concerning the value of a given work can be arrived at over time (usually a period of generations), it will always strike different auditors differently. My experience of "Starry Night" or "Eine Kliene Nachtmusik" or "Hamlet" or "A Tale of Two Cities" will always be different from yours, sometimes radically so. What mystifies one may delight another and no one can really explain why.

While the purveyors of the various arts awards and competitions may have the best of intentions, putting works of art in competition with one another debases them all. It takes the sublime and tries to make it concrete and attempts to reduce the ineffable to the pedestrian. The only exceptions are the Nobel Prize and any Lifetime Achievement awards, both of which reward a body of work for the simple act of being.