COULD an art work be awarded? Could it be called the best? Awards to art pieces strive to do just that.
They usually start with good intention: to recognise artists for their efforts, talents and creativity. However, most of the time, award organisers are not stringent with their definition of the award they give. If art is about taking one’s intellect and imagination into new and uncharted waters, no matter how unsettling or eclectic that may be, recognising an art piece as the best might not be suitable at all. In fact, it belittles the art form and the art form’s ability to defy easy categories. After all, categories are set by people, usually arts administrators, with some involvement and advice from critics and academics, or some other.
In my rather intense conversation with a local lighting designer the other day, we engaged each other on the importance of arts discourse in Malaysia.
To him, it is not an artist’s responsibility to engage in discourses on art; academics write things up about artists and their practices and the meanings in their work and get known for them. I don’t quite fully agree with these two statements, for makers of art, or artists, need to articulate their work and engage in discussions with their publics who lay claims to their art works; theories propounded by academics need to be researched and evidenced, not by simply stating personal preferences without justifications.
However, the lighting designer does have a point: it is not an artist’s responsibility to explain what he/she has created, for art pieces are there to be experienced, not read, not in an academic sense.
Nowadays artists are under pressure to obtain awards. In the course of it, they will have to appeal to the audiences, which is not the same as entertaining the audiences. They also have to appeal to the judges of the awards.
Wisdom on how to navigate this better could be learnt from the realist school of international relations — the realpolitik is key. To state a few: in which circle of influence are the judges operating in? Are the judges friends of the anointed arts practitioners? What are their political influences? Nominations at arts awards must first be based on the above factors, before an artist can begin thinking about wining the coveted awards.
To an artist, the advantages that come with winning awards are simply too great to pass. They look great on your CV. Future employers and collaborators will be assured of a certain standard of work, should they engage/collaborate with you in an art project. In the open market of arts educators, awards will also determine the rate of payment you could command customers/clients with. Art makers seldom think beyond these concerns.
Similarly, judges of the awards should justify their opinions with conviction. I prefer to think of it as arguing (putting forward a case) with conviction on his/her choice in excellence in the arts, in which the very platform for such an engagement and dialogue is lacking in many different cities in the world. Judges also have the responsibility to make stronger and better arguments to their choices.
How about the organisers of the arts awards, one might ask? They are the originators of the awards, no?
Yes, they are, but most of them merely consider themselves award administrators, not directors. These people who conjure the awards seldom define or engage in discussions to define the quality of the art pieces. One such example is the most important and highly coveted prize in the visual arts world: The Turner Prize in the United Kingdom.
According to The Guardian (2015), the Turner Prize is a big marketing mechanism for the Tate. Despite attracting negative opinion as well as tons of critique, the Turner Prize has garnered more support and popularity over the years, since its founding in 1987. As observed by The Guardian (2015), the prize has brought audiences to art works by important artists too.
Administrators of the arts awards should also think twice if they want to abdicate themselves from the responsibility of bearing the consequence of authorship (organisers are ones who announce who is “the best” or not), for having earned a reputation as the one setting the signal/influencing public opinion on who is “best” in art practice comes accountability.
Who are they accountable to? Art-goers. Many of them. Every one of them will lay claim to the decisions made by the awards committee. To simply push them aside with the reasoning that “no one is able to please everybody” is rather disingenuous, for art-goers are not homogeneous.
To quote a blurb from the Singapore art centre The Substation’s conference event in 2012, the difference between audience and public is:
The audience is a term often used by arts administrators — an object of desire, to be counted and coveted. Whereas the public is something that art-makers seem more concerned with. Audiences may be out there to be reached, but publics are always constituted by some sense of purpose or identity. Arts spaces are not just venues for the consumption of contemporary culture. If they do their job well, they become sites where individuals, from artists to audiences, gather together and feel some sense of belonging.
— The Substation, 2012
To organisers of art awards and to all artists, mindsets need to be changed from audience to public(s). Art writers and critics are also public to the arts awards. Discourse does matter. Engaging the public will ensure adequate feedback on the significance of awards as well as set new standards of appreciating art works and practices in society.
Lastly, concepts of consuming and experiencing an art work should also be thoroughly interrogated. Although it is an academic exercise, artists, arts administrators and organisers of arts awards should also know that an art work is to be experienced, not consumed.
I am not belittling consumption here, for consuming entertainment is also a valid activity which warrants a separate discussion in the realm of entertainment arts, an emerging academic discipline. It is good to note that consumption is a by-product of the free market economy, where the value of the produce is being negotiated and determined freely between the suppliers and the consumers, and therein giving up an artist’s autonomy in defending his/her artistic vision.
Richard Chua is editor for Theatrex Asia. On top of founding theatre collective Little Red Shop, he also helped develop arts and design programming at education institution KDU. Richard most recently staged Huzir Sulaiman‘s The Weight of Silk on Skin at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC). This version has been edited by The Daily Seni, for the original please visit Facebook.