Art and writing prizes, from the children’s art competition organised by your local paint shop to the Nobel Prize for Literature, are guaranteed to generate conversation and controversy. Unlike sports that can be judged on the time it takes to run a marathon or the points scored in a game of football, art cannot be objectively measured. Performance arts like music and dancing are to some extent judged on skill and technique, but paintings and poems often defy rational analysis.
With the annual Rio Tinto Martin Hanson Memorial Art Awards coming up in Gladstone in October, hopes and expectations are again setting artist hearts aflutter and creating its own internal controversies. The poor judge might have hundreds of entries to sift through and consider, but each artist also has to choose which two works from the past year’s harvest to enter.
No one can deny the subjective or even biased assessments generated by such an art award. Besides pure artistic merit (however you want to define that) here are some factors that might influence the choice of a winner:
The forty thousand dollar question (this is the total prize pool for this year’s RTMH Art Awards) is whether artists themselves should at all be influenced by such considerations when making or submitting a work. If the judge is known to be an outspoken environmental activist in his own work, should you submit an art work commenting on the looming extinction of polar bears? If she tends towards universal truths portrayed with immaculate technical skill, should you try for a Goya-like etching about war and displacement? Can you kick business in the balls with a jab at money grabbing capitalism or should you sweet-talk them by showing how industry can be art?
In my opinion this is where it is so important to stay true to your own voice (see also Finding your artistic voice). If you are a Matisse, don’t try to be a Bacon. If you are a Gauguin, don’t try to be the next Damien Hirst. In writing, if science fiction is your forte, don’t aim to write like James Joyce or Hemingway.
This does not mean that you should totally ignore the relevance of the competition when choosing from the art you have already made. You do want to say something. Art is both form and content. But art has to be honest and true. Selling your soul to the devil for a chance at the prize just isn’t on, so don’t even start dreaming about how much paint and supplies those dollars could buy.
Awards and prizes are lovely. They can be motivating, endorsing, soothing to the ego and just plain good for the back pocket. Just don’t let it go to your head. Because art is nothing if it isn’t free.