Arts & Competition

About once or twice a week, I receive a notice, usually either via my Facebook page or email inbox, that some musician friend has been nominated for some kind of award in some kind of competition. These notices typically come with a friendly request that I click on a provided link and cast a vote for that person. I receive these on a fairly regular basis. If it’s a friend, then it’s no problem. I’m happy for them and I’m down. I click and vote away. (Sometimes I get these from people or bands that I don’t even know and have never heard a note of, in which case I don’t always bite. This feels like award whoring to me and I’m nothing more than a number with the ability to left click.) Individually, these requests for my vote are cool with me. If I can help a friend grab hold of that gold ring, then by gum, I’ll do it. But collectively, these notices remind me a little of the kids at my teaching gig, jumping up and down, waving their hands around and shouting, “ Pick me! Pick me!” There is something inherently distasteful in watching musicians (or artists or actors or writers) jockeying for votes.

Um, I’m not sure how I feel about arts and competition.

Of course, I believe artists deserve recognition for their work and accomplishments. Where it gets problematic for me is when several people are nominated for one award and the winner is determined through a voting process among peers, the general public or whatever. Rather than an individual artist receiving recognition on merit alone, it turns into a something of an election, in which case the metrics for determining what is actually “the best” get a little fuzzy. Obviously, mastery and skillful technique are an important consideration. A guy who bleats and farts through his tenor sax and who can’t really play probably shouldn’t be nominated for the “Best Instrumentalist” award in the Joe Blow Shiny Headphones competition. But in many cases, like the Earshot Golden Ear awards for example, all of the nominees in any given category are outstanding. So then, how do we determine the winner?

This is artistic expression we’re talking about, people.

What happens to our collective psyche when we compete for recognition of our work? If all other things are equal, such as proficiency, skill, etc., then who are we to say that one artist’s expression is more valuable than another’s? Is the practice of determining “the best” really meaningful to an arts or music community? Sure, the big soirees around the awards ceremonies are a lot of fun and certainly pull people together, However, I observe that some arts organizations routinely recognize the same handful of artists year after year, creating, albeit perhaps unintentionally, an air of exclusivity. What does this do to the spirit of the whole or does it even matter? I guess this leads to my next question….

As an artist or musician, how important is community to you?

And what about the awards themselves? What do they ultimately mean? If you get one, does it validate your work? Help you get more gigs? Is it nothing more than a reason to party and high five your friends? I guess the answers would be as varied as the people who win. And what about the Vincent Van Goghs and the Emily Dickinsons out there? How do you feel if you are never recognized or nominated for an award? Does it matter? Does it change the way you feel about your work or how you value yourself as an artist?

Well damn. The more I write, the more questions I seem to have.

Right now, I am thinking of two jazz musicians here on the Seattle scene. (And no, I won’t name them, so don’t ask.) Both of these guys are amazing players; they have Zen-like mastery of their instruments and very distinctive and unique styles. They work a lot around town and with many different people. They’re as steady as it gets and they make it happen for a lot of musicians and vocalists. Yet, neither of them has ever been nominated for an Earshot award. (Sorry, Earshot. I’m not intentionally trying to pick on you. You’re just a ready example of something that I’m sure happens with arts organizations everywhere.) Not once. I don’t understand this at all.

So what does it mean?

I’m interested in hearing from you. What is your opinion of competition in the arts? Talk to me. Challenge me. I’m interested in different perspectives and other viewpoints. Clearly, I seem to have more questions than answers. Help me out.