Golden Illusion

As sure as Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time, I am a fiend for award season. Despite all of my interest in artistic relativism, award season has my ass parked in front of the internet for the entire month of December, refreshing news feeds to find out who’s been honored, snubbed, snuck in and left for dead.

Oscar parties, the perennial deluge of award show tweets, and Kanye West’s toxic relationship with the Grammys tell me that I’m not the only one who puts weight in the tradition of awards. Those who don’t are usually performers who spurn award shows for something like “missing the point of the craft.” I don’t really know what that means. Awards don’t necessarily dishonor those who don’t win and draw flattering attention to the medium as a whole, substantiating the consumer’s relationship with it.

Still, just because award shows are more beneficent in theory than their reputation claims doesn’t mean that our attempt at consensus of taste hasn’t become compromised. As with most social commodities, art’s meaning and value is strategically reassigned by consumers who attempt to corner meaning and value.

When 2009’s District 9 came out, I discussed it with a New Haven professor. When I gave her my assessment of the film’s mediocrity, she started in with the usual arguments. Yes, I knew what apartheid was. Yes, I saw what they did there (and sort of found it offensive). Yes, I knew the movie’s percentage on film-rating website Rotten Tomatoes. She essentially cited verbatim all of the positive reviews I’d read that argued the film’s brilliance. She didn’t even have to see the movie, and she probably didn’t plan to before she read the reviews.

The delegitimation of the award show starts here. It begins when we watch the trailer for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, get really juiced about seeing it, compare its reviews with those of American Hustle, go see the latter and pretend we like it more than we do, even though it’s not really up our alley. We change our interests and try to assume opinions based on the ideas of some megalomaniac.

Listen, I’m not saying pop entertainment critics are bad people or that their goodness or badness is what even matters here. The problem is that these people grade art based on personal inclination. This influences how the consumer grades art, which is really a personal decision. By blindly agreeing, we allow the critic to decide what art we do and don’t like and what art we do and don’t experience. How can we possibly form an individual opinion if we allow ourselves to be intimidated into liking a small subsection of the movies “predicted” to be nominated by a “professional” consumer with a “superior” reading ability?

Now, what is straight up bad is that the awards organizations involved seem to partly generate nominees from a socially self-conscious conceptualization and editing of the medium. There are a lot of people who are shamefully overlooked for reasons other than quality. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (i.e. the people who choose the Grammys) is the worst at this. They refuse to honor any artists that disrupt the Disney-fied U.S. they perpetuate. This year, they shockingly nominated Sara Bareilles for Album of the Year. Don’t get me wrong, she’s got something going on, but she is by no stretch of most music listeners’ imagination deserving of that honor, especially this year. She is PG, though.

Then there’s the perennial Kanye West snub. That two of the most innovative, universally well-received albums of the last five years have been overlooked for the sake of “catching grenades” shows the academy’s lack of interest in rewarding the best, but increased interest in molding the social inclination of popular culture. Kanyegate may never be lived down and, as a result, critical justice will fail.

This argument is not limited to music. Take last year’s choice for Best Picture, Argo, and its director, Ben Affleck. Based on the mythology of the Academy Awards, the director of the Best Picture should at least be nominated. However, the clown of the town for the last decade has a little more work to do before he can be accepted into the club. Nonetheless, Michelle Obama presented the Best Picture award, and she couldn’t possibly award any other movie besides the one about the guts of those crafty and illusive Americans.

Alas, I like award shows. I subscribe to a necessarily flawed consensus. I think end-of-year lists can be a really nice way to create a roll call for the people whose work during the previous year deserves praise. I just think frustration with them comes from a very legitimate place—not necessarily the idea that there is no “best,” because we obviously understand that quality of art is ultimately relative, but that they no longer represent any type of consensus at all. They’re instead the product of a strange sort of oligarchical streamlining of public opinion whose deceit is usually boldfaced.