On Awards and Prizes in Art

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On Awards and Prizes in Art

In 1993 during a trip to Sudan, Kevin Carter, a South African photojournalist, photographed a starving toddler, with a vulture in the background. This

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In 1993 during a trip to Sudan, Kevin Carter, a South African photojournalist, photographed a starving toddler, with a vulture in the background. This photograph, sold to The New York Times, appeared in that and several other news publications the same year. Many people contacted the Times to inquire about the fate of the child. The photograph won the Pulitzer Prize in April 1994. Kevin Carter committed suicide three months later. Alfredo Jaar, Chilean-born artist, re-counts and re-frames this narrative in his work The Sound of Silence (1995), which I encountered in a New York gallery in 2009[i].

The eight-minute film consisting of text about Mr. Carter and this photograph, unfolds in silence. On a black screen, short phrases fade in and out, in small white lower-case letters reminiscent of those from an old typewriter. It recounts the taking of the photograph, the details of which exemplify the inherent, maybe necessary, opportunism of photojournalism. Mr. Carter was about to photograph the little girl, who was slowing making her way to a feeding center; noticing the vulture, he waited another twenty minutes, hoping the creature would spread its wings, which it did not… Finally, he took the picture and shooed the bird away. The text proceeds to recount the aftermath of publication: the ensuing hue and cry; how the image received the Pulitzer Prize for photography in April 1994; and how, in July of that year, Mr. Carter killed himself at 33.[ii]

Jaar seemed to draw connections between the content of the photograph, the photographer’s experiences, the prize and the photographer’s choice to die. It raised complex questions regarding the nature of news media, of reporting, of narrating and framing realities. The fact that a photograph depicting such poignant misery and helplessness of a human being had been awarded a prestigious prize also purported a problematic. Was it the fortitude and professionalism of the photographer or the content of the photograph that had received the acclaim? Did the publishing of this image in leading newspapers, the prize and the outrage of the news consumers, and later the transformation into an art work and its consumption by the art world, lead to any meaningful dialog or action to ensure that such suffering be made an obsolete notion? Is art, or even documentary photography, obliged to play any such role towards social justice? Does it suffice that the photograph and the artwork chose this as their subject, ergo transporting it into the collective consciousness and making it part of both “popular” and “high” cultural production and discourse? Any such aesthetization of the political is contentious and discomforting to say the least, but the terrain becomes even more treacherous when agonizing tragedies are transformed into art than when they exist as documentary footage or photographs:

“Using human tragedy as an artistic readymade has definite pros and cons. Relevance is usually guaranteed; the heartstrings are likely to be pulled. But the art may be overshadowed by the story, which may in turn be trivialized and exploited by the art.”[iii]

This paradox intensifies when an award is bestowed upon the work – photograph or art. The award brings glory to and celebrates the photograph/er, the art/ist, multiplying the surplus value associated with them[iv], while shrouding the issue/content in complacence. The subject relinquishes its immediacy and becomes as inanimate as the other materials used in the service of the arts. The artistic thought and the transformation of probing inquiries into art gains centerstage, relegating the issue(s) that instigated the artistic thought in the first instance perpetually to the green room.

The fact that the photographer chose to photograph this instance and not any other, not one of the UN aid workers distributing food to the famine-stricken population, and the fact that it was this photograph that received both the controversy and the accolades, implies a sort of preoccupation with human wretchedness emanating from certain parts of the world. These images show us what we want to see, they are the depiction of the other as we want to view it, or depiction of the self as the other expects it to be. We do not see images of the homeless when we see New York depicted in art or on our various screens. We do not see the homeless woman I witnessed once while in New York, squatting – balanced precariously – between two subway carriages relieving herself in view of the platform. Our perceptions and memories are carefully constructed by systematic selection, editing, mnemonics, reiteration, oblivion, and rewards.

However particular and severe the case of “Kevin. Kevin Carter”[v], Jaar and this image (owned by Corbis[vi]) may be, I believe it has resonances generally for the institutions of cultural industry and the artworld. Prizes and awards reward and condone behavior. They codify what is successful and desirable. Operant or instrumental conditioning functions on similar principles. In fact, most mechanisms in our social lives are based upon the simple dictum of reward and exclusion from reward, or punishment. Extraordinary achievements and those who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind”[vii]do need to be acclaimed, acknowledged and rewarded[viii]. There are, however, those who would argue that a system of rewards might lead individuals to lose interest in the actual activity and be more interested in the reward.[ix]

The art world and art market is part of same human collective conscious, with similar phenomena at work. Anthropologically, socially, culturally, made up of individual human beings motivated and affected by same rules of the same or similar game as those working in any other sector in the capitalist model. The speed of life and of history herein and now seems to be different. There is no longer a singular meta-narrative in the post-modern and contemporary world, but simultaneous multiple narratives and histories –

“For the past several years, the focus on current art has been such that no one waits for history to make decisions about what is great, good, or simply competent. In an ideal career narrative that starts with graduation from a respected art school and culminates with a solo retrospective in a major museum, prizes are important plot points, clarifying an artist’s cultural worth, providing prestige, and pointing to the potential for long-lasting greatness”[x], and, in fact, contributing to constructing the histories of art and artists.

Moreover, prizes have the power to legitimize artists. “Selling for high prices and winning prizes are two of the most newsworthy things an artist can do – hard facts in a life of relatively unquantifiable achievements”.[xi]But these prizes and high price market may also be corrosive in that these may encourage the artist to continue producing work that is similar to and derivative of their own successful works, thereby forfeiting further intellectual and critical engagement. Prizes can consecrate and desecrate artists at the same time. For many artists, the opportunity these prizes represent is too enticing to pass up. For others, the brutal scrutiny, the possibility of public loss, and/or the ideological compromises are too great…[xii]

As Thornton posits, many international art prizes have developed a reputation for being reliable indicators of an artist’s success and reputation. The prizes act as a sort of a seal of confidence in the artist’s ability to sustain his/her art practice over the long term. Looking at it inside out, the prizes afford the artists a self-confidence and reputation that further their careers and professional engagement with the arts:

“In the course of researching the prize, I’ve experienced a similar chicken-and-egg confusion about the prize’s ability to reflect or create a defining sense of the moment. It finally hits me that it’s vital for the prize to do both”.[xiii]

Some of the contemporary artists originating from Pakistan who have won prestigious art awards in recent years:

The Abraaj Capital Art Prize[xiv]Hamra Abbas (2011), Risham Syed (2012), andHuma Mulji(2013); the Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year [xv]Imran Qureshi (2013); the Prince Claus Award[xvi]Naiza H. Khan (2013); 100 most prominent Pakistani individuals in the world[xvii]Rashid Rana (2012); Lahore Literature Festival Lifetime Achievement Award: Shahzia Sikander (2014).

Hamra Abbas. Woman in Black. Stained glass window, 3 panels.

Risham Syed. The Seven Seas. 7 Cotton Quilts filled with synthetic American wool. 2012

Huma Mulji. The Miraculous Lives of This and ThatWooden cabinet, various objects including taxidermy animals, plastic toys and dust.

Imran Qureshi. Blessings upon the land of my love. 2011. Gold leaf and gouache on wasli paper. Courtesy of the artist and Corvi-Mora, London.

Naiza H. Khan. Karachi Elegies. Still from the Homage video. 2013.

Rashid Rana. Red Carpet 1 (detail on right). Edition 1/5; C-print + DIASEC. H. 95 x W. 135 in. (241.3 x 317.5 cm). 2007. Collection of Pallak Seth. Image courtesy of Gallery Chemould and Chattertjee & Lal Mumbai.

Shahzia Sikander. The Cypress, Despite its Freedom, Remains Captive to the Garden. Installation view of digital projections. 2012.

Saira Sheikh is a visual artist. She holds degrees from National College of Arts, Lahore, and Columbia University, and teaches postgraduate courses at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.

More articles by Saira Sheikh:
In Focus:The Critique of Art as Commodity
In Focus:New Voices in Art
Profiles:Huma Mulji in Conversation with Saira Sheikh


[i] “Alfredo Jaar: The Sound of Silence” on view through May 2, 2009 at Galerie Lelong, 528 West 26th Street, Chelsea; (212) 315-0470 or galerielelong.com.
[ii] Smith, Roberta. “One Image of Agony Resonates in Two Lives”The New York Times. Published: April 14, 2009.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv]“(A Turner Prize nomination is often said to increase an artist’s prices by a third, whereas a win doubles them.)”Thornton, Sarah. Seven Days in the Art World, p. 140
[v]Smith, Roberta. “One Image of Agony Resonates in Two Lives”The New York Times. Published: April 14, 2009. “Mr. Carter’s first name is repeated, like a lament — either alone or “Kevin. Kevin Carter” — creating a sense of foreboding from the onset.”
[vi] Ibid. “Mr. Carter was survived by his young daughter, who owns the rights to the image, which are managed by the Corbis photo agency, owned by Bill Gates.”
[vii]Nobel’s last will specified that his fortune be used to create a series of prizes for those who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind” in physics, chemistry, peace, physiology or medicine, and literature.
[viii] However, who or what determines the standards for extraordinary achievements? According to Thornton,  “For Creed, no one is ever best in show. “If the artists create artworks, then the judges create a winner. Whoever they chose is a reflection of themselves.” Thornton, Sarah. Seven Days in the Art World, p. 139.
[ix]“Our basic strategy for raising children, teaching students, and managing workers can be summarized in six words: Do this and you’ll get that. We dangle goodies (from candy bars to sales commissions) in front of people in much the same way that we train the family pet. “Drawing from hundreds of studies, Kohn demonstrates that people actually do inferior work when they are enticed with money, grades, or other incentives. Programs that use rewards to change people’s behavior are similarly ineffective over the long run. Promising goodies to children for good behavior can never produce anything more than temporary obedience. In fact, the more we use artificial inducements to motivate people, the more they lose interest in what we’re bribing them to do. Rewards turn play into work, and work into drudgery.”
From the book flap, Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993 / 1999).
[x]Thornton, Sarah. Seven Days in the Art World, p. 111.
[xi] Ibid. p. 112.
[xii]Ibid. p. 113.
[xiii] Ibid. p. 135.
[xiv]“The Abraaj Group Art Prize is the art prize for artists from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Uniquely rewarding proposals rather than completed works-of-art, winners are announced each autumn and go on to produce artworks which are unveiled the following March. Each year five selected artists work with one international curator, culminating in an exhibition at Art Dubai and a new publication”.
[xv]“Art questions. It spraws new ideas for shaping our future. It inspires people, opens up new perspectives, and thus enables them to embrace unusual and innovative solutions. That is why promoting art has been a focus of Deutsch Bank’s cultural activities for more than 30 years”.Violence, Beauty, Hope: Imran Qureshi is Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” 2013.
[xvi] The Prince Claus Awards are presented annually to individuals and organisations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean for their outstanding achievements in the field of culture and development and the positive effect of their work on their direct environment and the wider cultural or social field. Quality is a sine qua non for an award.
[xvii] “In support of outstanding achievements in the field of Media and Arts, Mr. Rashid Rana, Associate Professor, School of Visual Arts and Design (SVAD), received an Award honored to a group of selected individuals from the Pakistan Power 100 list at a gala event in London on September 29, 2012. Marked as one of the greatest influencers in the field of Art in Pakistan, Rana continues to challenge the perception of Art from Pakistan at various levels, internationally. “Pakistan Power 100 Honours Outstanding Achievers n London”. Daily Times, 5 Oct. 2012.



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