The Prize Industry

Our friend Tierney Sutton’s latest album, “I’m With the Band,” has been nominated for a Grammy award in the category of vocal jazz. Although she probably won’t win, simply being recognized by the recording industry has been (and will continue for some time to be) a boon to her career. It’s effective shorthand: Grammy nomination = the imprimatur of excellence. As a sales device, almost nothing is more powerful.

The entire awards industry is an impressively efficient marketing scheme. Almost no one is benighted enough to believe that the winners of various awards are actually the best this or the most outstanding that — indeed, the frivolous public debate about who ought to win and who should have won and who got reamed is necessary fuel to keep the promotional engines running. Without contempt for the judges or the Academy or the nefarious corporations that “fix” the results, the prize industry would lose much of its heat. The misconception persists that genuine art, art that seeks to transcend the demands of the marketplace and reach for grander truths, isn’t beholden to money and machinations. Complaining about the injustice of badly chosen awards helps perpetuate the illusion that art is immune from the rules of the bazaar, where everything, even imaginary creations, are commodities to be bought and sold.

It is naive to think that art is not a competition. In fact, it is the most brutal contest: the battle for attention in an increasingly crowded cultural arena. The prize industry aids in sorting through the overstocked shelves of the creative grocery store. Most of the awards tend to go to the usual suspects. It’s the awards that are hard to keep straight.

According to a recent review of James English’s book “The Economy of Prestige” in The New Yorker, written by Louis Menand, who knows a thing or two about the power of cultural prizes, having himself won the Pulitzer last year, there are now more movie awards given out every year — about nine thousand — than there are new movies. (Another interesting fact: the prizes generally cost far more to administer than they’re worth. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition costs more than $3 million a year to operate; the winners get $20,000.) These expensive and largely irrelevant sales tools are exactly what most books, movies, records, poems, plays, operas, photographs, etc., need: something to connote value where, largely, there isn’t any.We Won and now feel validated

As Menand explains, in an information economy, the goods themselves are physically worthless. They are merely symbols on a page or swaths of color on a canvas. What makes them valuable — or seem valuable — is the recognition from people who are supposed to know about such things that they are valuable. This epiphany doesn’t come cheap; it has to be constructed by the prize industry and repackaged in an easily digested statuette. Ironically, the more we recognize that art prizes are the grandest form of publicity available to otherwise anonymous works of imagination, the less scandalous the notion becomes that there are winners and losers in the culture marketplace.

We want our friend Tierney to win the Grammy. It won’t make her astonishing album — or the equally astonishing five she previously recorded — any better to listen to. But it will certainly make it easier for her to earn a living singing songs that relatively few people care about.

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