Turner Prize 2013 Winner: Laure Prouvost. Installation view of Farfromwords: car mirrors eat raspberries when swimming through the sun, to swallow sweet smells at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. 2013.
In 2010, on learning that the British government was planning a cut in arts and heritage funding, a squad of influential artists (including a number of Turner Prize winners and nominees) wrote to the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, warning him that reducing art funding would be “destroying this remarkable and fertile landscape of culture and creativity, and the social and economic benefits it brings to all.” The indignant group, which included David Hockney, Mona Hatoum, Howard Hodgkin and Damien Hirst, wrote: “It has taken 50 years to create a vibrant arts culture in Britain, one that is the envy of the world. It enriches the lives of millions of Britons and attracts millions more visitors from other countries. It does all this at a cost that is no more than a tiny fraction of the national budget.”
Can a tiny fraction of the national budget lend to a sustained development of, and interest in, the arts? Art awards are not only a means of encouraging artistic talent but are also gilders of the sponsor’s own reputation, be it a government body, an organisation or a museum or gallery. The Medicis were not being entirely altruistic when they conferred their largesse on ambitious Florentine artists, desperate to outshine each other. Besides, a competitive milieu is also crucial to the production of art. Even now, awards and prizes for artists in many countries promote inventiveness, research and, as with prizes like the Abraaj Group Art Prize, all-out radical thinking that would otherwise have little chance of manifesting itself.
While a number of art awards cater to established artists with litanies of shows to their names, there are some that aim at younger participation. The Golden and Silver Lions at The Venice Biennale, for example, are for artists at advanced stages in their careers. Prizes like Tate Britain’s famous (or, rather, infamous) Turner Prize are career-making opportunities for artists who have been exhibiting for some time. On the other hand, prizes like the Future Generation Art Prize particularly require younger artists to apply, promising them – in addition to cash prizes – the opportunity to be mentored by an acclaimed artist. Such accolades may matter more to an emerging artist as they may be seen to add a kind of authenticity to his nascent practice. Receiving an award can mean getting validated as an artist to someone who has just begun to display work in public.
In Pakistan, there are few awards for artists to begin with and of these, it is the government-sponsored ones that are presented to artists who have made significant contributions to the arts. The Pride of Performance is one – a number of prominent Pakistani artists have received it since its inception in 1958, including Anna Molka Ahmed, Mian Ijaz-ul-Hassan, and A. R. Nagori. The other honour that recognises artistic services is the Sitara-i-Imtiaz (Order of Excellence) and its recipients include Sadequain and Saeed Akhtar. The Pakistan National Council of Arts also used to bestow a National Award for Excellence in Art on artists with the strongest entries at National Exhibitions it hosted. However, only nine of these have happened up till now, the latest taking place in 2013 after a decade-long hiatus. With the National Art Gallery in Islamabad offering a fitting space now for such an extensive exhibition, there is no apparent reason why the biennial and the award associated with it should not be revived.
Provincial art associations, such as the Artist’s Association of Punjab, also hold annual exhibitions, with prizes given to the best entries. But these exhibitions, again, draw artists who have been inducted into the professional art world already. The only notable and consistently granted awards for young artists in the country are the Alhamra Art Gallery’s prizes for ten most compelling works at its Annual Exhibitions for Young Artists. Needless to add, these exhibitions are exceedingly popular and feature frequently on emerging artists’ resumes. Hundreds of artworks are submitted to these and a panel of judges (made up of distinguished artists and art educators) select ten for the prizes. The artists who are awarded these receive instantaneous recognition of their talent in the form of material approval. They may not all go on to become prodigies pursued by galleries and curators but a fight is born in them all the same. They are encouraged to work more and work better, and for a while, at least, the intimidation of a busy and looming arts industry in front of them is dispelled.
But are artists in monetary need of art prizes today? The myth of the eternally tormented artist would suggest that any financial help provided to the artist would be a favour not just to him but to society at large, as it would allow him to realise the masterpieces he has only imagined and bring about some remarkable social change. But the act of providing the suffering artist with economic comfort by means of an award so he can produce work would also be self-defeating, because the artist would then not be inconvenienced enough to be raw and great. Furthermore, recent years have proved the visual arts industry to be a lucrative one, with the rise of art galleries that are tycoons, art fairs that are trading posts, and artists (even, and especially, the ones with the most quixotic visions) who are overpaid. So has the idea of art competitions and prizes been rendered gratuitous as far as need goes? And do many art awards that still exist come with a fine print? Is it important for the artist to work in a particular vein if he wishes to be considered eligible for these awards?
All this, of course, does not take away from the fact that accolades were and are a cogent way of honouring achievements and supporting budding talent. Sponsoring prizes and hosting competitions would be one of the ways for art galleries and museums in Pakistan to increase publicity of the arts and ensure engagement from nonprofessionals. Nominees for a certain prize could be invited from the general public, for example. At a time when Pakistani artists seem to be uncontested favourites for international prizes, absolute shoo-ins, one does wonder why there is not much being done in their country to acknowledge that.
Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan