It has been said that art awards increase the appreciation of art in society. Unfortunately, their underlying values and criteria are not revealed in public, and they are also not made clear to the artists involved.
The situation is almost as absurd as if a group of cross country skiers would be placed on the starting line, they could use any style they want, and the length of the race would not be determined beforehand. An expert would then decide why one of the skiers was worth the prize.
The purpose of art awards is to make a “qualitative” differentiation of artists from each other. The aim is to distinguish “significant” artists from the “insignificant” ones. Examples of this restriction are the Ars Fennica and Carnegie awards. Helsingin Sanomat wrote in the beginning of September the following: “The Carnegie prizes were awarded for the tenth time to the most significant artists of the Nordic countries. The awards are granted every two years.”
In art, one would think, the separation is especially difficult. There are no standards for art. The quality definitions of art turn out to be internal criteria of the conservative art elite of their own. They have been limited in advance to the formalistic art, with all references to the social world and society removed. Should there be any references, they are connected to the “high universal” laws, comprehensible only to the few and selected ones.
Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman associates the expert elitism with the concept of charismatic justification. A group of experts is thought to have extraordinary knowledge, insight and access to sources of information not allowed to ordinary men and women, guaranteeing the reliability of their vision and the appropriateness of their choice, and motivating us to approve those values.
A person of common sense has no means to verify the claims of charismatic people and thus no right to mistrust the power of their visions. The stronger the charisma and position of the leaders, the more difficult it is to question their orders and choices, and the more comforting it is for the people suffering of acute insecurity to follow their commands.
In art awards two factors are combined: economic power and illusion of cultural capital. One buys cultural capital for him/herself, and the other strengthens his/her position with the help of economic capital. In the context of art awards cultural conservatism is fortified, where art is the instrument of distinction needs of the upper class. Art is not allowed to criticize the society or remind of the growing inequality, poverty and suffering.
Separation is also made in science and in business world. But why do we do this? There is a wider social expediency in the background. Its purpose is to remind of the winner’s culture, where both individuals and enterprises race each others in every field. Competition and economic prosperity are the purpose of life – not culture or justice. The art and artists have always been considered as an extremist area, where exceptional individuality is natural and can be economically evaluated and exploited. The market of modern art has transformed into an industry, where more and more profits are reached for. The art market does not tolerate art that criticizes neoliberalism. Art has to be exploitable by its exchange value.
In the world of art the influence of economy is a hushed up secret. It is experienced as a realm separate from art. Nevertheless, economic power has been used in the art world just as in other sectors of society.
There have been selections, favours, awards, appreciations, depreciations in the art world. The institutions have been hierarchized in the same way as other hierarchical systems in other sectors of society. Competition and situations of power struggle are not unknown inside the art institutions. The tradition of art institutions is also tightly interlaced with the cultural traditions of the upper social class.
The art has been regarded as an unselfish activity, one without perspectives of profit. The artist works possessed by internal passion and strives to honestly and truthfully express his/her extremely individualistic world. In this paradigm the art is set outside the other profit seeking social activity and especially outside the power hierarchies. The art is seen even as opposite to power.
The view is totally misleading. A successful and good artist is a selling artist. Every artist, that has no sale and no awards, is guilty of his/her own defeat. The career success of artists has become a publicity symbol of differences between successful and unsuccessful people in the competitive society.
Heikki Marila, an artist colleague I highly appreciate, who won the Carnegie award this year, is a refreshing exception in the chain of formalists. In his previous production Marila has been engaged with poverty, social exclusion, pervert manifestations of power, blind repression, sexual violence and social injustice.
Congratulations to the winner!
Mika Karhu, visual artist, Ars Fennica candidate 2009