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What Are Awards For?

Ted Rall on

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.

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