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What Are Awards for?
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What are awards for? More precisely, what should they be for?

John McWhorter recently argued in The New York Times in favor of a retroactive Pulitzer Prize for Duke Ellington, who was snubbed for the journalism and arts award in 1965. My encyclopedic ignorance about jazz entitles me to have no opinion whatsoever about this attempt at raising an issue.

One sentence in McWhorter’s essay, however, deserves special attention: “We assume that Pulitzers are awarded to work that qualifies as for the ages, that pushes the envelope, that suggests not just cleverness but genius.”

Do we really assume that?

Should we?

When the Pulitzer board or governing body of other major prizes like the Oscars, Emmys, Tonys and so on decides upon the recipient of an award, what message is it trying to send?

I agree with McWhorter. An award for best whatever of the year should first and foremost go to the best work in that category. A close-second consideration — my opinion, obviously — should favor work that is transformative, original, different. Judging by lists of previous prize winners, however, some people disagree — particularly those who decide the winners of these contests.

While the media obsesses over awards and prizes handed out to its fellow elites, such competitions are part of life across every social stratum, from elementary-school best-citizen awards to 4-H contests to merit badges to best employee of the month at a fast-food joint to your boss’s annual review. They determine whether or not you get a raise, sometimes whether you keep your job or get laid off, and even whether people are shocked or just shrug their shoulders after you kill yourself. Awards and prizes are key components of human motivation under capitalism, of which angling for higher relative social status is a primary driver, perhaps the top one.

Like most of my fellow scribblers, I have spent too much of my time and energy handicapping — always unsuccessfully — award decisions for two simple reasons. First, winning one can really help your career. When I started out, newspapers were reluctant to pick up my cartoons, which were drawn in a brutalist style at odds with the prevailing, crosshatched norm and ideologically far to the left of my colleagues. The establishment imprimatur of the 1995 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award made enough editors feel safe to run my work that I was able to quit my day job. Second, we look to award announcements for indications of the kind of work that the powers that be are looking for from us. Conservative cartoonists, passed over in favor of liberals year after year, not unreasonably believe their work is neither valued nor wanted.

As a judge on several award committees (not the Pulitzers), I have participated in numerous discussions about what criteria should be applied to assess the worthiness of prize applicants. I have also raptly absorbed countless secondhand accounts of the proceedings inside the hallowed halls of the Journalism Building at Columbia University, where the Pulitzers are administered.

(Earlier this year, Columbia eliminated the Pulitzer for editorial cartooning, merging it with a category so broad that the possibility that a political cartoonist could win has been reduced so radically that there’s no longer a point to entering.)

My experiences as a judge convinced me that the all-too-human members of prize committees are incapable of rendering anything approximating a reasonable decision. Very few judges have the comprehensive knowledge of the field they are judging necessary to do the job. Almost none have any historical background that informs the relevance of what they are looking at. Most elevate superficial factors — it made me laugh; the art is pretty — over more serious concerns like: Does it make you think? Does it make you think differently? Does it take the form in a new, exciting, better direction? Does this award encourage smarter work, or — as is too often the case — discourage it?

Seymour Topping, late administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, vetoed my elevation from finalist to winner on the grounds that “(Rall) doesn’t draw like the other editorial cartoonists.” The same year, one of the RFK judges told me I won because my drawing style was different. Both decisions were dumb.

So what are awards for? Mainly, they’re for reinforcing the status quo. For example, the common practice of having previous winners of a contest judge it ensures stylistic continuity.

Awards are a stupid idea poorly executed. People win prizes to make up for having been passed up in earlier years even though other, younger creators are now better than them. Corruption is rampant. Committees don’t bother to look at some entries. Committee members direct other members to vote for their friends and drinking buddies. Sometimes there is horse-trading in order to evenly distribute prizes to winners affiliated with different employers. Even worse than corruption is the utter lack of qualifications of those making the decisions; among the decisionmakers for the cartoon Pulitzer have been a freelance technology writer and editors for newspapers that don’t run any cartoons.

Although I have won awards and still apply — you have to play the game — I would abolish them. Unlike sports like track and basketball, where the metrics are straightforward — you either cross the finish line first or the ball goes through the hoop, or not — journalism and the arts are subjective. I may disagree with the Motion Picture Academy’s choice of the now-forgotten “Ed Wood” over Tarantino’s Gen X masterpiece “Pulp Fiction” and giving a Grammy to Milli Vanilli over fellow nominees Tone Loc and the Indigo Girls. But it’s a fair bet that the voters who made those calls assess film and music, and who should win awards for it, via different metrics than I do. Even if it were possible to objectively determine what is “best,” elevating one person at the expense of an entire field is toxic and discouraging.

But contests aren’t going anywhere. So we should try to agree on what it means when someone or something is declared the best of its kind.

Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: American Media, Journalism 
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  1. Ed Wood is a much better film than Pulp Fiction.

    Most of Ed Wood’s actual movies aren’t much worse than the garbage that Tarantino tends to put out.

  2. Franz says:

    Prize Culture owes a lot to earlier, but mostly 19th century, American farm culture.

    Every county of any size had a fair. At the county fair judges would give small prizes to whomever made the best peach pie, grew the biggest squash, caught the biggest fish, and so on.

    When the 19th turned into the 20th century, advertising men had the Great Idea: People in the US feel something that wins a prize must be good. So awards for this and that proliferated.

    Newspaper awards are actually old compared to the Emmys, Oscars, and so on. These awards are only meant to stimulate interest and therefore business.

    In the 1970s there were still venerable people that had been at the start of the movies, and many of them said it was time to get rid of them. “It was just a gimmick to sell tickets. Not needed anymore.”

    For proof, take a look at some of the garbage that won Academy Awards in the 1970s. Never even heard of most of them. They really should have dumped them.

    But just like the Nobel Peace Prize, Oscar will go on to embarrass us for many years to come.

    • Replies: @animalogic
  3. anon[254] • Disclaimer says:

    Pulp Fiction really really sucks, because it is really, really perverted.

    Ed Wood wasn’t bad.

    • Disagree: meamjojo, meamjojo
  4. All major awards are fake, promoting the celebrity du jour. Nothing to do with talent, genius, nor achievements. Who your ancestors were is the main criteria.

    Similar to the list of candidates for high political office. A choice between Tweedledum (R) and Tweedledee (D).

    Consider it a plus that Duke Ellington wasn’t recognized by those people.

  5. Queequeg says:

    In addition, the effects of DEI wokeness will now be with us until those hacks DIE off, so there’s no chance of such awards ever being meaningful again.

  6. meamjojo says:

    It’s so sad that someone over say age 30 would not have any knowledge nor have listened to the great Duke Ellington!

    Your music education is lacking (along with many other subjects).

  7. BuelahMan says:

    Best I can tell, these awards are simply jews clapping each other on the back or some affirmative action making lesser talented people into stars (when they really have little talent or value).

  8. Ed Wood/Pulp Fiction type controversies are nothing new. Go back through the almost 100 years of Oscars, pick a year at random, then compare the Best Picture winner to all the other pictures released that year. As likely as not, the winner will be a film no longer of interest while competing nominees, and often un-nominated films, still find an audience today. For the nominees and winners, it is a big deal, as it directly affects the amount of money they can demand in subsequent contracts. For the audience these awards are just fodder for trivia contests.

    Decades ago I realized that awards ceremonies tell you more about the people giving the awards than the people receiving them. Today I might check the news the next day to see the results, but I would never waste hours watching the ceremonies.

  9. Legba says:

    On the plus side, the general public isn’t even aware of the various circle-jerks and who wins them.

  10. it seems like a good idea to consider a response on the Pulitzer page

    For the Record

    Miller Responds to McWhorter Newsletter: In a July 28 letter to The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize Administrator Marjorie Miller responded to “Duke Ellington Deserves the 1965 Pulitzer Prize,” a July 20 newsletter by Columbia University linguist and cultural critic John McWhorter. “There have been numerous instances when no Pulitzer Prize was conferred,” Miller said. “In 1965, the three-person nominating jury in music unanimously agreed that none of the eligible compositions that year were worthy of the award. Instead, they proposed that a special citation be awarded to Duke Ellington for his overall contributions to American music. When the Pulitzer Board declined, there was a public controversy over what some saw as a cultural injustice rooted in racial prejudice. Up to that point, the composers who had been awarded Pulitzers did not include people of color.” She added: “In 1996, George Walker became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, for his work ‘Lilacs.’ In 1999, the Pulitzer Board finally awarded a special Pulitzer citation to Ellington on the occasion of his centennial year. The award expressly honored Ellington’s ‘indelible contribution to art and culture’ and implicitly redressed a grave wrong. We believe that special citations are as consequential as our other awards. Ellington was indeed special, in the pantheon with such music citation awardees as Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, George Gershwin and others. As Terry Teachout, one of Ellington’s biographers, correctly observed,

    ‘In 1999 he got his Pulitzer.’”

  11. “What Are Awards for?”

    To generate buzz to stimulate sales.
    To facilitate the formation of awards committees, with salaries and perks.
    To give award winners bragging rights to promote their brand.
    To feed to the lazy press and to enrich the media.

    What don’t awards do? Stimulate the production of great works.

    Ed Wood is a sweet biopic with a lot of heart. I like it better than most of Tim Burton’s stuff.

  12. TG says:

    An interesting and intelligent post.

    At least in part, awards can be overtly political. Consider the fake Nobel Prize in economics: there is no such thing, there is a fake award created ‘in memory of Alfred Nobel’ by the big banks. This award is given (not won) by corrupt and disgusting intellectual whores in order to put a false patina of respectability upon their corrupt and vile maxims. Pretty much everything these fake “Nobel Laureates” push has turned out to be utterly false, like the idea that NAFATA and MFN for China would absolutely not result in American industries moving overseas – and yet these people continue to be treated with reverence. If I were president of the United States I would sign an executive order banning any recipient of the fake Nobel Prize in economics from having any content with any government or government-funded action. I can dream.

    Of course awards area also political in a narrower sense of the people at the top of any field scratching each other’s backs.

    They are also something that can occupy time at the beginning of a conference. Giving awards lets the conference organizers act important.

    But as imperfect as awards are, they can also be a way to recognize talent and hold up outstanding individuals as exemplars, as role models – to show us what can be done, to emphasize what we should consider admirable. So it’s not all bad, IMHO.

  13. Biff says:

    When they started to give “music” awards to Rap stars I threw up in my beer, and will never again take “music” awards seriously again.

  14. @Franz

    There are some questionable 1970’s best pictures – the “French Connection” & Patton but also some definitely great pictures – “one flew over the cuckoos nest”, “the godfather” (I & II), Kramer v Kramer,
    & the “Deer Hunter”. (“Rocky” & “The Sting” are good films but…. )
    So, perhaps not quite as bad as you suggest.

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