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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Prize matters in a society infatuated with awards

By Art Carey
Knight Ridder News Service

"And the winner is ..."

You'll be hearing that phrase a lot, for the prize season is upon us.

First, the Golden Globes, then the Grammys (tomorrow), and the Oscars (March 5), plus the ongoing "American Idol" sweepstakes.

And let's not forget the Pulitzers (April 17), a high holy day for word-slingers.

Truth to tell, when it comes to prizes, "there really is no season. It's 365 days a year."

So says James English, a University of Pennsylvania English professor who speaks with some authority on the subject. His new book, "The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value" (Harvard University Press, $29.95), argues that we've become an awards-crazy culture in a prize-drunk world.

A prize season? What about the film festivals (Cannes, Venice, Toronto) that bracket the summer? And all the prizes in the fall (the Nobel, the Man Booker Prize, the National Book Award, the Kennedy Center Honors)?

In our culture of congratulation, 'tis the season every season.

The rise of prizes over the past century, and especially their feverish proliferation in recent decades, is "one of the more glaring symptoms of a consumer society run rampant," English writes, "a society that can conceive of artistic achievement only in terms of stardom and success."

In the realm of literature and the arts, the focus of English's book, honors have been pullulating like kudzu. Worldwide, the number of movie prizes handed out each year about 9,000 is more than double the number of full-length movies produced, English reports, and literary prizes are being hatched at a faster rate than new books.

Ironically, in a culture saturated with awards, one can achieve real distinction by NOT winning one, English observes. When Tolstoy, no mean wordsmith, was overlooked by the Nobel gods, it merely swelled his greatness.

Turning down or dismissing a prize, on the other hand, can be tricky; for one thing, such a "strategy of condescension" (English's term), handled clumsily, can make you look like a snob or phony.

When Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam picked up his 1996 Grammy for "best hard rock performance" and declared, "I don't know what this means. I don't think it means anything," he was being falsely modest, coyly naive or plainly stupid. As English spends more than 300 pages arguing, prizes matter.

For starters, they address a basic human need: We all want to be loved, we all want people to clap for us, for something we made, something we did. Prizes show admiration, formalize esteem.

Prizes and awards are how we recognize merit and assign value. They are how we police the canon and referee the perennial struggles over what's good or bad, in or out, hot or not. In the arena of culture, prizes are how we keep score.

His research revealed that the prize phenomenon took root at the turn of the 20th century, about the time (1901) the first Nobel Prize in Literature was announced, bankrolled by Alfred Nobel, a dynamite and ammo peddler eager to launder his legacy. In time, of course, the Nobels would become the mother of all prizes, emulated, exalted and scorned with equal zeal.

The culture of congratulation gathered steam in the 1970s, after the promiscuous egalitarianism of the '60s simmered down; by the turn of the 21st century, our penchant for prize-giving had become positively manic. The International Congress of Distinguished Awards, founded in 1994 and based in Philadelphia, tracks what it regards as the world's most prestigious awards in a variety of fields. So far, it has singled out 128 from a pool of 30,000.

"The presence of awards is universal, and the pool is almost countless," says Larry Tise, the historian who heads the group. "The first thing an organization does when it comes into existence is start a newsletter. The second thing it does is give out an award."

Why are we so infatuated with prizes? Is it a reflection of the culture of narcissism, a pathological need to prove ourselves?

"More than half of all the awards given in the world are given in the United States," Tise observes. "We are a democracy. We don't have a king or queen conferring dignity by making people lords and knights. So we recognize excellence from the ground up by giving ourselves awards."

Result: Prizes have become an enormous industry, English says. "There's a whole lot of money at stake" $2 billion, by one estimate "and many people who devote their entire lives to the administration of prizes and awards."