Award Season and Missing the Point of Art

In Jr. High, I threw away every trophy, ribbon and accolade I ever received. I’m usually the worst person to compliment. At best, I’ll just act like you didn’t say anything out of the ordinary. I almost fell asleep at my college graduation. All this is to say that I don’t really “get” anything out of awards or accolades. I get why they exist, I get why other people like getting them, but if you hand me an award my first thought will be “what a waste of materials on something that has no practical function.”

I do things for their own value. I write not for an audience, but from the joy I get from writing (although, I’m happy there are people who enjoy what I write). I go to school because I enjoy the process of learning in and of itself. And when I watch movies, I enjoy the act of watching the movie for what it is, in that moment, and try not to let anything outside of that get in the way.

With the award season coming, I’m reminded that there are people who want more than just the pleasure of watching a film; they want the films they enjoy the most to be awarded, to gain merit. There are a few elements at work here; I think one of them goes back to the basic human desire to be validated. Movie watchers want the film they love to gain the award to validate their love of a film. That isn’t to say they’ll stop loving the film if it doesn’t win, but that a movie fan wants their film to be the winner, to be able to say, “see, they love it too!” I lack the part of the human psyche that yearns for this kind of validation.

Part of it is also a bit competitive. Much like rooting for our favorite sport team, movie fans root for their movie to be the one that pulls out ahead. Have I ever mentioned how I’m not that competitive? Actually, that’s not true. I’m very competitive. I’m in a constant competition with myself. Haven’t won yet. But when it comes to competing against other things, I don’t really care. The last time I publicly pulled for a movie during award season, it was Winter’s Bone, which I knew had no chance of winning. So yea, I mostly pulled for it just so I could be “that” guy.

This year I’m reminded how trite the whole affair of awards seasons is with talks of The Master getting snubbed at the Oscars. Yes,The Master is my favorite American film of 2012, but I don’t particularly care that it didn’t get nominated.

The reason it doesn’t bug me is that I think The Master is a film that isn’t for everyone and that the people who do end up seeing the film will likely recognize Phoenix performance as excellent and enjoy it. And that’s enough for me. I get the more activist mindset of awards as a way to mobilized people to watch things they might not see otherwise, but the kind of people I know who would go see a movie because it won best picture or best actor are not the kind of people who are going to enjoy The Master.

Instead of rallying people around declaring which performance or film should win a particular category, I think there’s much more value in simply enjoying the films for their own sake and recommending them to whomever we think will listen and enjoy those films. I’m sure some will say rallying support for an award accomplishes the same goal, but I disagree. It’s about winning, it’s about recognition, it’s about wanting something to be declared THE BEST!

To me, that kind of attitude is counter-intuitive to art. Art isn’t about winning an award; it’s about expressing something that connects with people on an individual level. Sure, an award may help a work of art reach more people, but the award is neither the end nor the means of art. It’s an incidental factor. If you’ve encountered a film you think is great and a work of art share your enthusiasm and recommendation, but art isn’t a Battle Royale or a Hunger Games where one champion stands at the end.

Some of the best works of art put themselves in conversation with other works, draw influences and build off of other works. Sometimes films are adaptations from books, plays or other sources. Other times the film might be a homage to a bygone era of film-making. No artist should be motivated by a desire to beat other people, if anything they should be motivated by the strength of another artist’s work. It should be iron sharpening iron, not iron battling iron.

And that’s why I find all this awards business continues to miss the point. It’s not about given a golden star (or statue) to the head of the class. Yes, I have a favorite film of 2012, but that won’t stop me from recommending all the films among the top ranks of my list. In fact, depending on who I’m talking to, I might recommend a different film than my favorite. I’m all for excellence in The Arts, but art isn’t about being the best.

© 2013 James Blake Ewing

  • Dan

    Actually, Joaquin Phoenix did get nominated at the Oscars. People assumed it wouldn’t happen because of his disdain for awards, but it actually did. Even so, that’s a minor point and I see what you’re saying about awards.

    I enjoy the Oscars and think it can lead a lot of audiences to check out movies they wouldn’t normally see. That’s why I think the nominations are more important than even who wins the awards. It doesn’t really matter who’s declared “best”, since it doesn’t really mean anything. However, the awards season is huge to a movie like AMOUR, which is now going to get a lot more attention. I know people who aren’t crazy movie fans but see all the Best Picture nominees every year. Past winners can also direct people to watch older films they might ignore. So there is a value to it for general audiences. Yes, cinephiles are going to already know about these movies, but the recognition can play a huge role beyond a silly statue.

    • James Blake Ewing

      I should have double checked that. Guess that’s what I get for taking the word of movie sites that run off of rumors.

      The problem with Amour is that people may hear of it now, but it’s still not readily available. It hasn’t been announced for home video release and I doubt it will get a wide theatrical release.

      • Dan

        Good point about Amour. It’s actually not showing currently in St. Louis, though it is coming back February 1. I expect it isn’t showing at all in a lot of places.

  • Man, I could’ve written this myself.

  • I hear what you are saying and agree. And I would venture to guess that most of the directors, actors, and actresses look at things the same way – understanding, better than any of us, that becoming an A-lister requires more than talent and hard work (read: a generous degree of luck and timing). I suppose that one could look at the Oscars each year as a half-full or half-empty proposition. The 2008 Oscars (with “art films” like ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘There Will Be Blood’ dominating) was a high point. And even this year, you have to appreciate the fact that films that seemed constructed to win an Oscar for an actor (e.g., Anthony Hopkins in the now annual biopic category) was passed over for Joaquin Phoenix.

  • Suzy

    Good article.

    If awards reflected the best then people like Tilda Swinton, Michael Fassbender & Michael Shannon would be winning a lot more awards!

  • Janet

    And yet you do a Top 100 list. Isn’t that the same thing as awarding one film over another? You’re such a pretentious hypocrite.

    • James Blake Ewing

      Yes, quite. Snob