by Greg Ruth
|Miss America 1956|
What triggered this post was Arnie Fenner's brilliant post on Monday about this selfsame subject, Do Awards Matter?, but this has been a big topic of conversation since earlier this January. Still, that doesn't mean I'm not happy to stand on the shoulders of my betters and make this week's post a kind of response to Arnie's if not a companion piece. It's a complicated subject and one that deserves more paper and words than I'll come close to here, but that never stopped me before.
Awards can bring previously unknown work to the fore, (though they really tend to celebrate the established), and can make a book's success, or a movie director's ability to make another. They are in essence and likely at their best, a marketing tool. And that's not a bad thing. None of my top favorite movies have won oscars, same for my top five books comics and records. Awards don't have to validate and they don't bestow value, but they have a place and they serve a purpose and I don't blame any of them for that. The problem I think hovers around how we respond received and then deal with being rejected by them. Most of it is our fault, though some of it is natural to the award.
So... do awards matter?
Yes and No. But I don't think that's the right question necessarily. Everything matters if it matters to someone, the question remains... are they the right thing to be talking about?
|The one time Eisner Award loser, THE LOST BOY from 2013|
Awards don't matter to the art. Or shouldn't.
The work doesn't care about the awards. It doesn't care whether you're dressed or not either, but you know what I mean. The goal of art should be the art you make, the rest is just the after effect. I've always been an admirer of the abstract expressionist school of artmaking (if only for this one ethos), "that the action of making the work is where the art resides. The piece after is just evidence". It's a footprint of where art walked, a remnant like an old photo of a long passed loved one. Awards don't generally account for big upticks in books sales overall, as they tend to reward books already selling well. They don't make the next piece of art better- in fact the opposite is usually true. Awards, when left to grow beyond their worth begin to demand from the recipient a measure of attention not worth bothering with. That is not to say i don't value the awards i've recieved, nor do i refuse to recieve them with homest appreciation and thanks. But what I don't do is put them under a spotlight and pray to them in the studio. I tend to do the opposite if only to remind me that as nice and honorable it is to receive an award, the work you do in the studio the next day is far more important and valuable.
The hype around awards and award giving, the build up, the grandiose ceremony all comspire to inflate their importance to the outside world of the award more than the piece. Does anyone think about the Hollywood Foreign Press outside of the Golden Globes? The Academy of Arts and Sciences extant of the Oscars? No- of course not. It's a marketing Prom Night, and practically speaking there's really nothing wrong with that, as long as you don't mistake it for intrinsic value of the art. Personally, I hated the entire process of being nominated for the Eisner for THE LOST BOY. It made me feel uncomfortable when I was congratulated on the nom and made me look at my own work in a way I didn't enjoy and was glad when it was all over. I knew it would be rude to dismiss the honest affections other bestowed on me for it, but it felt like lying every time I said thanks you. I think winning it would have been nice for the book and for those who love it, but it would have been bad for me. This is not to say I am not grateful for the nomination and proud of the work and honored by the support, or even resentful of the books that won. It just put me into a mental place where I started looking at the book from an angle I didn't like, through a lens that changed the way I saw the thing I had made. Maybe as time passes I'll get less neurotic about it all, and probably will. But at the time it was pretty rough on the psyche. I made fumbles with this when it got made the New York Times Bestseller list, (another award with an even more arcane jury system), and continue to have a deeply uncomfortable relationship with it all. But it all greatly helped the book's success and I confess having worked in comics for this long and to receive these accolades finally and only with my own creator owned book felt and feels supremely great. Still... I wince to think about it a little. It's like having someone else's thoughts in my head insisting to be my own.
|Spectrum 12 Gold Awarded to FREAKS OF THE HEARTLAND's tpb cover in Comics|
Awards in imperfect validators.
Ideally we should appreciate a piece, a movie, an actor's performance or an artist's painting for what it is in and of itself. Period. But we don't live in that ideal world. The problem comes when awards are corrupted into being external validators or personal ones. Their favorites become ours by force of their personalities or the agreed upon power the award carries. It's a kind of value totalitarianism. If you as an artist work towards getting an award as a goal, and use your art to get there, you're doing it wrong. Terribly, horribly wrong. If you require such outside validation to feel good about your work, ditto. Awards are congratulatory, not validating. The moment they become the latter in lieu of the former, walk away from it. It's a bad road to go down and subjects you to feeding a thirsty beast whose appetite will never be slaked. I's hard enough to make good and valid work without poisoning your soul trying to justify yourself at the feet of some award. Seriously. They have a basic purpose and value but only while they remain within their limited sphere. Anything more than that is simple corruption.
|Political cartoon for CNN during the 2014 election cycle|
Awards are rarely a true meritocracy.
The dirty little secret about almost any award given to a group of nominees, is that it's less about the basic quality of the onject being rewarded than it is about the politics of the judges in the room giving it. Rounding down to the nomination procss is from my experience about inherent merit. That's why I generally prefer stopping there. Let the award go to all those nominated. What happens in these final rounds, whether its Spectrum, Society of Illustrators, the Oscars or the Eisners, is that it then comes down to the negotiations amongst the jurors as to who gets what, by way of horse-trading and bargaining. It's a negotiated settlement, not the cream rising to the top. And again, there's nothing inherently wrong with this- its a basic eventuality of having disparate people in the room being forced to agree on a single object, and I can't honestly claim to know a better way. That committee system you experience, is not terribly dissimilar to this process, and ultimately, and usually, the least offensive idea succeeds, not the most qualitative. This is not to say those getting the award don't deserve it, nor that they shouldn't be proud to receive it. You don't get that far down the line without bringing your quality. My point in bringing this up is to recognize honestly, that what wins is not necessarily what's best overall as much ad it is what's best in that room, at that time, given those jurors. You put the same pieces in a room with a different herd of judges, you will get an entirely different result. If it's that conditional or situational it doesn't hold the same level of value as you may think. It's not a law of physics or a final judgement, it's just what everyone managed to agree upon in that time and in that place. Making it through and getting that gold medal is great news and something to honor. Mistaking not getting that medal as a symbol of one's lack of quality is total bullshit. Don't fall into that trap. My beef is then really with the sort of passively hidden truth of this process- that it's ubiquitous to every award scenario I've known of or been a part of and yet no one outside of those rooms seems to know it. There's something a touch dishonest about that, but again like making sausage, it's probably not something that makes sense knowing about.
|Isobel alone in the Kingdom from THE LOST BOY|
Awards can force atrophy and doubt where none previously was.
As does not winning them. This comes from ascribing to the award some kind of godlike validation which is really what fuels the desire for an award in the first place. We grow up with Miss America Pageants and the Oscars and we see how beautiful beautiful people are when they win beautiful goldy things and crowns. We're conditioned early to see awards as validators, which to me is a terrible TERRIBLE way to see awards in genreal. They are affirminators, celebrators, but should never be seen as validators. That road leads to whole reams of confusion and self doubt that are basically stemming from the idea of the award rather than yourself or the work they are supposed to be rewarding. Is then the problem with awards how we misuse them? Yes. and this is probably the thing that makes this retort to any pro-award celebrant more toothless and less controversial, but that don't mean it ain't true. Really my problem with awards is, as Al Swearingen put so well, is that they are a Lie Agreed Upon. It's hard ot unlearn something so deeply rooted so my default has been to instead, is to do my best to pretend they don't exist. It's like any kind of addiction- if you can't have a drink without drinking ten or twenty, then stay away from the enterprise altogether. Don't give the desire for an award the fuel to turn it into a knife pointed inward or a cause to feel entitled to point it out towards others. If you give up because you never win any awards, you've been doing it for the wrong reasons all along. Only give them as much power as is healthy for you creatively to do so, anything else, is bad for everyone.
|The battle royale from EDENTOWN|
Awards create a lie of competition.
They do. They may not intend to and the organizers may disavow this and blame anyone thinking about this as being their fault, (and they may not be entirely wrong), but you line a select few up at a starting gate, fire a gun and make them chase a goal only one can win... that my friends is a competition. And I don't have anything against competitions overall- we are physiologically hunter based and competition is a healthy, natural course for making ourselves better. But having an outside body snatch up a bunch of creatives, who've made their work for their audience if not for themselves, now forced to look sideways at their peers as competitors... I call bullshit on that. While they don't call the losers, "losers" they do call the winners "winners", and really the reverse is applied. Taking say this the Oscars as an example... Putting five or six different creative projects next to each other, which have little or nothing to do with each other (Selma, Mr Turner, Boyhood, American Sniper for example) and choosing only one of them as being the best is in my opinion wholly insane. These films are all doing something completely different from each other, and aside from the broad stroke realities that they are all movies and all have actors in them acting, comparing them against each other as value is the worst form of an apples to oranges comparison. bestowing a prize and then cheerleading their thanking us for it strikes me as something dark to be honest. Even if it is perhaps essential marketing. I know for a fact more people saw BOYHOOD only after it began receiving a lot of awards and nominations. Rick Linkletter now has much more agency to do more experimental films because of this and the actors who participated have stronger career possibilities and agency than before because of this. There is a real and important benefit to this process, no doubt. But is there another way?
I don't know, really... but I would be especially happy to have say, the nominees at the Oscars each get an Oscar and call it there. Of the 600 movies in a given year that are made, choosing just five is a seriously reduced enterprise already. No need to guild the lilly by then choosing again amongst the five, right? I don't want to look at books and have a childishly egotistic side of me look dubiously at other books I truly love but now must see as competition in me acquiring my prize. This problem comes from the act of giving a single award itself. The Highlander Quandry. I would even say this is true both of the Spectrum and Society of Illustrators I judged recently. It was almost painful to have to try ands pick medal winners from a swath of excellent work that at that stage I thought should already get awards. It was then that we had our most contentious conversations. It's where the judging became hardest and least pleasant. SOmething changed by the nature of the need to assign a single victor, which is fine in a football game but in art or literature or film or music.... not so much. Art is not a sport, and sports are not art. importing the victory or die ethos to art seems ill fitting at best and costs much more than it gives. yes, the winners can go on to reap real tangible benefits, the vast majority- meaning everyone else- get forgotten in that process.
|James Cameron, totally, hilariously getting it wrong on Oscar night.|
But you know, this is not going to change many minds or alter this system we seem all of us, to collectively desire. Winning an award is something you can and should legitimately be proud of. There's nothing wrong with that at all anymore than when any review or person congratulates you on doing your work. Losing an award is likewise wholly meaningless as it pertains to your sense of self, or as a legitimator of quality. Some truly astounding works of art- most of the very best in fact, have never won an award at all. And it doesn't make them any less powerful for it. It's a fine line between celebrating the honor of receiving an award and shoving it up people's noses as Jim Cameron did so famously. We want you to be proud but not too proud, humble but not too humble... thankful and obedient to the rules now encapsulating you as a creative person. None of these qualities would be celebrated in the process of making art, but we insist upon them when we award art. Why is that? What does this process change in our work? What does it change in us and how we see ourselves in making our work? Art should never be a competition amongst peers, and should never be done in seeking an award or some kind of boosting of your ego or fame. Desiring awards is I think unhealthy, winning them doesn't have to be. And you know what? If it is there's always next year.