Monday, 23 August 2010

Prize Winners, Knights, Clones and Rejects

Yesterday I visited Martin Creed's exhibition, "Down Over Up", at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. I'll refrain from discussing the Ins and Outs of the work here other than to say that it's worth seeing if you're in the vicinity.

At the entrance to the gallery is an introductory text intended to give some context and background to the exhibition. It has become something of a cliché to introduce such solo exhibitions by listing the various prizes awarded to the artist during their career. How should we interpret this emphasis and what might it tell us about the values of such art galleries? Perhaps it's assumed that the ‘doubting public’ will be persuaded by this conventionalised claim to authority and recognition. I’m reminded of Madonna's 2001 prize-giving speech when Creed won the Turner Prize:

The figure who introduces Madonna in the video and stands to her side is Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate and chairman of the Turner Prize committee. In the book “Seven Days in the Art World”, Sarah Thornton describes an interview with “Sir Nick” in which they discuss his misgivings about the prize:

"Competition between artists is almost taboo in the art world, and Serota admitted that contests like the Turner Prize are “iniquitous in drawing distinctions between artists of very different kinds.” […] “Few artists enjoy direct competition,” said Serota. “Artists struggle to express themselves, and for that they need an inordinate amount of self-belief. In some circumstances that self-belief will shift into competitiveness, but it is rarely comfortable.”

Later in the essay Thornton catches up with Martin Creed at the 2006 Turner Prize awards ceremony:
"For Creed, no one is ever best in show. 'If the artists create artworks then the judges create a winner. Whoever they choose is a reflection of themselves.'"
It would be a mistake to think that this kind of situation is restricted only to the higher echelons of the art world. The process of moulding individuals in our own image is prevalent throughout society and academia is no exception:

“In describing the ideal we look for the impossible, and we begin at a point where we are looking for those who most closely match our desires and probably ourselves. These models are culturally loaded in favour of a constructed notion of the masculinist, unencumbered affluent individual. The ‘ideal student’ would demonstrate that they are ‘fit’ in a Darwinian way to take up the subject the minute they enter into the world of higher education. They would be highly motivated and as passionate about their subject as their tutors.” (Vaughan et al. 2008)

This has everything to do with the distorted logic of meritocracy and most especially the idea that we should reward people for their talents and abilities. (Achievement is it’s own reward and we’re in danger of creating complex problems when we create prizes to heap on the already fortunate - I’ll come back to this issue in a later post). The other problem with the idea of meritocracy is that it assumes that we’re ‘good’ at spotting - or agreeing on what constitutes - talent and ability in the first place. Consider for a moment the artist Susan Philipsz who applied, and was rejected, for a place at Glasgow School of Art in the late 80’s. Earlier this year Philipsz was nominated for the Turner Prize, but considering the ‘masculinist’ track record of the Turner Prize judges (3 female winners in a quarter of a century) she probably stands less chance than she did of getting into Glasgow School of Art.

“If there were any sense that someone was going to win because of his or her gender or ethnicity, then the prize would lose all credibility.” - Nicholas Serota

THORNTON, S. 2008. Seven Days in the Art World. Granta, London.
VAUGHAN, S. et al. (2008) Mind the gap : expectations, ambiguity and pedagogy within art and design higher education. In: L. Drew ed. The Student Experience in Art and Design Higher Education : Drivers for Change. Jill Rogers Associates Limited, Cambridge, pp. 125-148.


Post a Comment