Monday, September 8, 2008

The Booker, The Dobell and the Ultimate Prize

The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between the profusion of matter and of the stars, but that within this prison we can draw from ourselves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness.
--Andre Malraux

In 2001, Graham Huggan published
The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins, a scholarly book that examines some of the processes by which value is given to postcolonial works within their cultural field. He uses both literary-critical and sociological methods of analysis of the marketing of "products" for Western consumption.

Higgan’s postcolonial study includes a section on the Booker Prize, arguably the world's most important literary award which has the power to transform the fortunes of authors. The 1996 winner Graham Swift commented upon the import of the Booker thusly, "
Prizes don't make writers and writers don't write to win prizes, but in the near-glut of literary awards now on offer, the Booker remains special. It's the one which, if we're completely honest, we most covet."

Now in its 40th year, the prize attempts to reward the author of the best original full-length novel of the year, written in the English language, by a citizen of either the British Commonwealth of Nations or the Republic of Ireland.

Whilst discussing the impact and the history of the Booker Prize, Huggan advised,
Literary prizes have existed in one form or another for many centuries. . …..As state subsidies of the arts have dwindled, alarmingly in many countries, corporate sponsors have emerged to dominate the literary/artistic scene. [The Postcolonial Exotic, pg 105]

Indeed, such is the origin of the Booker Prize, established by the Booker McConnell company, a leading multinational agribusiness, who began sponsoring the event in 1968. In 2002, the administration of the prize was transferred to the Booker Prize Foundation. At that time, the title sponsor became the investment company Man Group, which opted to retain "Booker" as part of the official title of the prize. Although the official name of the award is the “Man Booker Prize for Fiction”, aficionados and the media alike simply refer to it as “the Booker.”

In previous years, the gala dinner, where the winner of the award is announced, was televised in the UK and the Commonwealth nations awaited the decision of the judges with baited breath and much learned debate. I vividly recall one year (1990) when a panel of writers inclusive of Germaine Greer discussed the books that had been shortlisted for the prize, and then did a post-mortem analysis, similar to the way political speeches are addressed by the political analysts and the media in the United States, and movies are dissected when awarded “Oscars”. In fact,
The Economist, a weekly news and international affairs publication, referred to this reception thusly," The {Booker} Prize has become a British institution, rather like Derby Day. "

Recently, there was an excellent article in
The Guardian which provided vignettes gleaned from the annual adjudication of the Booker prize winner. Even if you’re not a bibliophile, it is an enjoyable read, especially as you learn about the horse-trading, the tantrums, and the personality politics that contributed to the awards.

One of the most vocal losers of the award has been Salman Rushdie, when he lost to J. M. Coetzee from South Africa/Australia, author of
Disgrace. Allegedly, Rushdie, who had attended the ceremonial dinner, pounded the table in a rage upon hearing the announcement, and declared to all present that Coetzee was a “shitty winner.” This outrageous show of bad sportsmanship and poor command of language was despite the fact that in 1981 Salman Rushdie won the prize for Midnight's Children.

The reality is that winning an award is a vindication of hard work and most who “lose” feel a sense of disappointment, no matter what a polite smile on their face may attempt to convey. Yet, anyone who is nominated for a prize and loses can count themselves amongst a gallery of time-honored individuals. Review of the distinguished writers of the last century who have been overlooked for the Nobel Prize for Literature include Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy and Federico Garcia Lorca. One can also readily turn to celebrated movies that have failed to win the "Oscar" for Best Picture of the Year to see great movies unrecognized by the members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Here’s a short list of some of those films:
  • Citizen Kane
  • The Maltese Falcon
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • North by Northwest
  • Citizen Kane
  • Vertigo
  • Star Wars
  • Some Like It Hot
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Philadelphia
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
Oddly enough, although he was nominated for five Best Director Oscars, enjoyed a career spanning 54 years, traversing 65 films, two continents and practically every technical revolution (silents, sound, color, 3D) and directed numerous movies now viewed as "classics", Alfred Hitchcock never won an award for Best Director in Oscar competition, although he was awarded the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award (for lifetime achievement) at the 1967 Oscars.

Ultimately, the evaluative process cannot be truly freed from ideological constraint. As humans, we have social agendas, personal biases, and cultural predilections and while we may try to consciously act impartially, these preferences will determine our concept of “excellence.”

My interest was engaged recently when it was announced at the Art Gallery of New South Wales that Melbourne artist Virginia Grayson is the winner of the 2008 Dobell Prize for Drawing for her work,
No conclusions drawn – self portrait. The Dobell is Australia’s most respected award for drawing

According to The Australian’s national arts writer, Corrie Perkin, “Speaking after the presentation at the Art Gallery of NSW, Grayson said she was shocked to win the award, named after one of the great figures in 20th-century Australian art, William Dobell.

"Recently I have decided I have to resist this desire to wipe out the work, to let it go, move onto another, and return to it later if the need is still there to do so.''

On September 5th, Louise Schwartzkoff, The Sydney Morning Herald, quoted Grayson as saying, "
Honestly, I don't feel like I've quite finished it," she said. "I always feel like there's something more to do. At one point near the end, I was ready to just erase myself and make it more abstract."

When I investigated further, I learned Grayson had also commented, "
I was becoming a bit too obsessive about it, and it just didn't seem to be working. . . . You want to keep a level of play and energy and looseness in the work, and I felt I was losing that. You feel like you're taking the virginity out of the paper if you muck around with it too much. For a minute, I thought about throwing it away."

How many times have other artists and writers experienced similar feelings of inadequacy and doubt? How often have artists and writers abandoned works of quality because of an inner voice that quelled the understanding that the work was “good enough” or ready to be seen by another? I suspect the answer to these questions is “far too often.”

Virginia Grayson, who has claimed that she drew a self portrait as she couldn’t afford a model and has spent the past few years working up the courage to submit her work for the first time to the Dobell Prize committee, should be a source of inspiration for us all. She should be commended, not just for the artistic recognition afforded by the Dobell, but for actively demonstrating how to slay the demons and ghosts of insecurity that haunt most artists and walking away victorious and untrammeled.

As many will attest, there is an intrinsic relationship between art and freedom. The art historian, André Malraux, examined the relationship between art, freedom and reality. For Malraux, the reality in question is not a vaguely defined ‘world in which we live’ nor a nebulous collective reality. All art, he argued, is essentially the individual’s response to a metaphysical reality. He believed the reality to which art responds is ‘the fundamental emotion man feels in the face of life, beginning with his own.’ He further elucidated that same emotion is our underlying and inherent sense of the arbitrariness and contingency of all things.

Gaining from Grayson's experience, and fully recognizing that we have arbitrarily created standards demanded of ourselves, we may start to learn how to confront our fears and empower ourselves, thereby effectively coping with negative emotions and becoming able to obtain greater inner and outer freedom. And maybe....just maybe.... great works of art won't find their way to the dust bin but will receive their due accolades.


Jennifer said...

Just wanted to thank you for a well-written, interesting, & far-ranging post.

Sharon_Hart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
S. A. Hart said...

The shortlist for the new Booker Prize has just been announced. Here's a link to an article in the New york Times about the books that did (or didn't) make the list:

Kim said...

hi Sharon...
excellent post!!!
great reading on the Booker Prize...
sounds like the Art and Film worlds are alike in their 'judging' too...
thanks for posting the Dobell winner...
I didn't have time to enter this year ...perhaps...being too choosy had a lot to do with it ...
how many good works do artists obliterate because they aren't 'just right'
I'm still regretting painting over my son's portrait especially when I see the original version on my computer...oh well that's art for you ;)

S. A. Hart said...

Kim, I can comisserate about your son's portrait. Not only did I do likewise with regard to a portrait I painted of my eldest son, but I also made the grave error of critically looking at a watercolor which had won a 1st place award in a national juried competition. After re-viewing the painting, I found something that really bothered me about it, so I attempted to "fix" it. Subsequently, I destroyed the painting in the process, dand I no longer have hard-copy photos of the painting in its original state, or digital ones on the computer. I've learned my lesson; once the paint brush is put down and the signature is applied, it's finished. ---grin--- In the case of my son's portrait, I actually started a new painting afresh, as I wasn't able to get the effect I was seeking, and originally enjoyed. The good news is that neither of us work in marble!

Kim said...

ha ha Sharon...
yes marble would be a worry...
as for the portrait of my son..I suppose I can be grateful that I have a copy...and possibly have it digitally reproduced on canvas...
that would have been tragic for you to lose any record of your son's portrait...

PurrPrints said...

Hey sharon--just wanted to let you know I'm going to go ahead and send out your pendant and gift tomorrow, so you don't have to continue to wait on RME. Just transfer as soon as you're able & that will be fine :)

make sure to let m eknow when your goodies arrive

flit said...

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mar said...

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