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What's the point of the Oscars?


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Last night in Los Angeles, the shimmering city of cinema, Hollywoodʼs brightest stars aligned for the 87th Academy Awards. Birdman was presented with the Best Picture accolade, whilst Eddie Reymayne and Julianne Moore were deemed Best Actor and Best Actress respectively. But Ê»bestʼ according to who?

Winning an Oscar is widely considered the pinnacle of show business achievement. However, no-one questions the authority from which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestows awards on the cinema industry.

In fact, the calendar year is punctuated by such awards ceremonies and prizes, which reverberate throughout the arts industry. Forget traditional holidays – if gossip columns are anything to go by, a more relevant approach would be to begin the year with the Golden Globes, see the months through via the Brit Awards and the Mercury Music Prize amongst others, and finish with the Turner Prize in December.

Despite their ubiquity, I canʼt help but find these occasions a little bit silly. They attempt to make definitive conclusions about something as flexible as art, neatly boxing someone elseʼs creativity into a particular mould. And just who exactly makes these decisions? When reading the reviews published in magazines and newspapers, itʼs always clear that the opinions discussed come from a particular person, whose interpretation of the subject in question is equally particular. Awards, by contrast, are handed down to us from some mysterious authority, whose supposed infinite knowledge permits him or her the privilege to determine something as subjective as quality. Really, this power is false. In the context of the Oscars, has each voting member of the Academy seen every film to have come out in a particular year? Surely this is necessary for anyone whose job it is to determine the Ê»bestʼ.

An examination of the Academy Awardsʼ Best Picture category demonstrates some of the politics and problems of any prize giving system. In 2010, The Kingʼs Speech won Best Picture, beating Black Swan and Toy Story 3. The Academy chose a stuttering future king over a psycho ballerina and a living toy cowboy. It seems bizarre to compare films made with totally disparate aims, intended for equally disparate audience demographics. Between 5 and 10 films are nominated for the prize each year, but itʼs clear from the outset that there are some total no hopers. Notably, comedy and science fiction remain unpopular with the Academy, who instead prefer more historical or noble subject matter. This demonstrates how biased the process really is. Further, some films are simply too unconventional to even be acknowledged. Paul Thomas Andersonʼs recent adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel Inherent Vice was praised by critics. But as Ian Nathan writing for Empire puts it, the film is Ê»way too eccentric to land awardsʼ.

Some – perhaps the grumpier among us – accuse awards ceremonies of being sickeningly self-congratulatory. We, the audience whose loyal patronage of the arts renders them both commercially and critically successful, watch a select in crowd indulge in a communal back pat. Of course, the pressʼ voyeurism of such events is a symptom of todayʼs celebrity culture. In 2006, Keira Knightley compared her Oscars experience to a Ê»dog showʼ. In any case, such events arenʼt simply a show business love-in, theyʼre also a competition. Itʼs nice for any peer group to gather together once in a while and celebrate each otherʼs achievements. However, hyping some up to be better, or the Ê»bestʼ defeats this point.

Proof that the Academy Awards ultimately bears little weight in the grand scheme of, well, life, is that many classic films have never received a gold statuette. For example, A Rebel Without a Cause and The Shawshank Redemption remain undecorated. Stanley Kubrick, now considered an iconic director, only won the Best Visual Effects award. This highlights a different test of artistic success – time. Longevity and memorability are important factors in determining whether something is very good or not. Perhaps the Academy recognises this and indirectly attempts to right its potential for error with the retrospective Honorary Award.

Yes, art has always been competitive. The Royal Academy of Arts is currently touring a collection of its masterpieces in Australia and Japan. The exhibition is entitled ʻGenius and Ambitionʼ as what primarily stands out from each painting, despite the wide variety of artists, is the endeavour of each individual to create something great. This aspiration is exemplified in the intense detail, scale and subject matter of the paintings, and reflects each artistʼs attempt to establish a unique legacy. Also, there have always been standards expected of beauty and genius, well supported by those keen to indoctrinate them. Different schools of literary criticism interpret texts from particular viewpoints. This deliberate subjectivity naturally means that some works of literature are held in higher regard than others. The confusing, shifting concept of ʻgood tasteʼ has always existed. But in a time before the web of prizes that signposts todayʼs culture, artists were granted the privilege of being recognised for their individuality, rather than patronisingly made to compete for the title of ʻbestʼ within a particular year.

Awards do exist beyond the spheres of show business and the arts more generally. The Oscars are easily lambasted because the contenders are celebrities who otherwise reside on the covers of glossy magazines. What about the Fieldʼs Medal or the Nobel Peace Prize? More than anything, todayʼs ubiquitous awards serve as markers for human aspiration. The ambition they incite in others to surpass existing human achievement is the real point, not so much the winning itself.

Also, these prizes remain an important means of generating publicity for different disciplines. This is especially important for the arts, whose projects as a whole now receive far less funding. Damien Hirstʼs prices rose by 27% immediately after winning the Turner Prize in 1995, and theyʼre now infamously sky high. The Costa Book Awards can be interpreted as a positive means of encouraging more of us to rediscover reading. And of course, smaller, non blockbuster films rely on Oscars ʻhypeʼ to generate ticket sales.

For me, awards ceremonies are best taken with a pinch of salt and a cynically raised eyebrow. Talent easily predates – and outlasts – prizes. The contemporary tastes of a particular collection of people is a crazily restrictive means of measuring success. Finally, itʼs worth remembering that Vincent van Goghʼs paintings hang in The National Gallery today, despite him only selling a single artwork in his lifetime. After all, itʼs not necessarily immediate popularity that measures genius, but rather the legacy left.

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