The glittering prizes: fool's gold / by Ellice Mol

10 November 2005

Early in 2004 I thought, this is the year to win a few prizes, so I entered quite a few. If you win you can put them on your CV to impress people. If you don’t get hung, no one knows and you keep it to yourself. Most of the artists I know believe the whole business to be a tacky affair and the idea of prestige, even with the Archibald, is nonsense.

The main reason most artists enter prizes is because they’re broke. They need the money and can get a little more exposure to the public, which is limited during regular one person exhibitions.
I got rejected from every prize I entered except the Mosman Art Prize. I would rather been rejected from this also as it looked like a Jumble Sale, too many works were hung. At least John McDonald, the judge, tried to be open to all sorts of approaches and the winner was a decent choice.

With encouragement from my private collectors and some curators, I entered the ‘Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award’ which is held in Melbourne annually. I put in the most ambitious piece of work I have produced. Hundreds of artists enter these competitions so of course you have to be lucky to be accepted. However looking back at the selected works over the last few years you cannot help but feel slightly cynical. The ideas that got the nod were three small rubber ducks (bought from a shop), a pile of suitcases, pieces of plastic strewn on the grass. There is usually the odd shed (very Aussie); the winner in 2001 was Karen Ward’s ‘Hut’. Within ten years I think the whole collection will be an embarrassment to the organisers, with some works literally turning into ‘junk’ and having to be remade.

I also entered the National Sculpture Prize and exhibition, held at the National Art Gallery every three years, and was also rejected. This exhibition suffers the same disease as the ‘Helen Lempriere’ award. At the launch of this exhibition a spokeswoman said that, “the prize was a good opportunity for young sculptors to launch their careers. Is this an appropriate agenda for such an important exhibition? In many cases the young winner is never heard of again as the attention hinders their natural development. It would be more interesting with this type of exhibition to only receive entries from artists with ten years experience in the field. Support for young artists would be better spent on materials and rent for local and overseas studios.

In all these prize exhibitions there is excellent work (and judges) but one feels during the selection process a fake democratic process takes place where every shallow, minor and silly idea has to be represented. Many of the works have very little content beyond a sniggering joke, and are boring and uninteresting. The same clichés retort from the judges’ lips like, “The work extends the boundaries of painting”, or, “This piece is at the cutting edge of practice, very original”.

What I find most depressing in our visual culture is the ‘dumbing down’ and emptying of historical references, craft and technique. These attitudes are looked down upon as academic and passé. Puns and inner circle jokes about art within the last thirty years are supported as serious issues that weren’t particularly funny in the first place.

No art form has any real value without a group of conventions that can be discussed refined and crticised. Post modernism has been a disaster in this way with beliefs or ‘stances’ looking old fashioned, it is safer to have none. You may think the writer has conservative values, which may be true, however some things are worth conserving. Do you believe the work I’m discussing is radical? If so, is being radical in itself a useful position?

Artists must realise that with most prize exhibitions, the money is put up to promote the prize givers, not to support artists. To promote a stronger visual arts culture, the structure of prizes could be reformed; award several prizes of equal merit and only charge an entry fee if the work is selected. This could be higher than the existing fee as the artist does get more exposure and to a larger audience with possibility of selling work. The most noble action would be to forget the prizes altogether. An organisation could have a small committee of enthusiastic members who visit exhibitions and buy for a collection. This might require more effort but would be a more rewarding experience for both artist and patron. The University of Western Sydney has done this for a number of years – however it is sad to say that recently they have gone over to a Prize exhibition to wave the cultural flag and promote the university.

The selection of judges for the “Glittering Prizes” seems to fall on the same narrow band, often with conflicting interests. The judges should include more senior artists and let their biases take place. It would be more surprising and fairer in the long run (the sky won’t fall in). Often large panels are a problem, a decision can’t be reached on a winner and the panel’s choice becomes politically correct and faint hearted. At the moment the public get a very narrow view of what comes out of artist’s studios. A lot of artists enter competitions, but one out of ten get selected and it certainly isn’t the most interesting work.
When I add up the costs of all the prize exhibitions (I’ve only mentioned a few), entry fees, transport costs and time spent repairing work that came back damaged in the last eighteen months I realize how silly I have been. I could have purchased some small works from my artist friends and given some real support.
There are some exhibitions like ‘Sculpture by the Sea’ that have had a positive effect. David Hawly started it for the right reasons ; a passion for sculpture and wanting to share this with the public. The participants meet other practitioners and take part in the responsibility for looking after the exhibition while having to confront the audience. There is a pluralistic approach with all types of work, many prizes and sponsorships. I runs the risk of its’ own success destroying the original vision. Some sponsors will see it as a way of pushing their own agendas. A friend with a long time involvement said, “they only like bright shiny work”.

It also receives criticism from other practitioners for being ‘bread and circuses’ for the public with very little serious work. While I think this criticism is true, the exhibition’s ‘light touch’ had a positive side. People who never go to an art gallery walk along the foreshore and enjoy it on their own level. Every year there is more work that fits into the ‘visual joke’ category (e.g. the fried egg). The work is ‘light weight’ but also fits into this type of exhibition that is only for a short duration.

The problems I’ve been tinkering with on these pages won’t be solved by changing a few judges of prize exhibitions. My own belief is that there has not been any art of real significance since I was born – 1950. What we have had is a lot of wonderful flourishes and footnotes on modernism that have dwindled into parody and cynicism.

The challenge confronting us is how we can channel limited opportunities and financial support to stimulate and strengthen exposure of quality work to the public.

Merrick Fry
November 2005