I got beat by a 69 year old man.
A lot of people beat my 5K race time but this guy stood out by being 30 years older than me and a couple of miles per hour faster as well. Actually, I knew this guy was going to toast me when I saw him before the race and I knew lots of other people would too. I told myself I just wanted to finish the race well, that I wasn’t trying to beat anyone else, I only wanted to improve my time. In other words, I lied.
During the race I found myself accelerating when I’d get behind other runners. Something about running just behind someone else made me want to pass them. And if I’m really honest I can say it felt pretty good to cross the finish line and then watch all the people I passed finish behind me. Perhaps I’m shallow, but I’m honest.
I usually get to have the conversation about competition in art about once a year. Sometimes with a student, sometimes with another artist, but always the same conversation. Usually the other person throws the first stone with something like “I don’t believe in competition in art”. Which to me is like saying, “I don’t believe in trees”. Things do not need you to believe in them in order to actually exist.
Competition in art exists. I can show you documentation. I get emails and snail mail each week offering to let me take part in these competitions for a small fee. Each year I enter several of these competitions, also called “juried exhibitions” just as my artist forefathers have done for ages. It’s part of the deal whether you like it or not.
I realize that’s not exactly the kind of thing the person on the other end of the conversation is saying. Generally they are talking about the idea that art should be seen as the emotional and conceptual expression of an individual and that there’s no universal criteria for judging such a thing. On the surface I’d like to agree with that argument….but I’d also like to win another prize for my art.
Recently my Sparkle City friend Kerry brought this quote to my attention: “The real reason that literary prizes are so prized, however, is that prize-giving is intrinsic to the purposes of poetry. From birds to bards, the urge to outdo the other singer is what makes us sing. Since the first strum on the oldest lyre, literature has been about competition and the possibility of recognition. Pindar, the father of lyric poetry, took as his chief subject the winning of games, and the spirit of the end-zone dance has been with us ever since. Horace satirized everything except his own appetite for fame. Milton mourned Lycidas not because he stood beyond all prizes but because he died before the prizes could be won. The subtlest souls still show up in Stockholm to make the speech. Fame, honor, the laurel, and the bays, this more even than getting back at the girls, or the boys, who left you for another—the writer’s other great motivation—is the poetic passion. (Even the idea of posthumous fame is merely the thought of a prize given while we are sleeping, and have left our muttering to others.)” -partial quote from Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. (link - http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2010/10/18/101018taco_talk_gopnik#ixzz150Qu35Pt )
I’ll admit that it sounds nice to say that no two artists should be judged on how they struggle to reveal inner truths about their own life experience. But to agree with this side of the argument would also mean that I’d have to convince myself to believe that my conversation partner would elegantly and articulately refuse any Best in Show award offered to them. And we both know that’s not going to happen. You can’t hate competition in art when you lose and revel in it when you win. I mean, you can, it just makes you a hypocrite and a bit of a jerk.
I’m barely a runner and there’s no danger of me winning any awards for it any time soon. Still I’ll nearly give myself a coronary to pass you in a race. Humans are competitive. That’s how we got this spot on the food chain. We want to be as good as we can possibly be at whatever we love to do. We want to be great and we want someone else to notice. There’s a word for an artist who does not want to be the best. That word is “hobbyist”.
Of course it’s problematic to judge works of art. Even after you break contests down to one particular field of expression (poetry, music, visual art) and then further break them down into categories (drawing, painting, sculpture) you still have to wade through various approaches to style and content. Then there’s the issue of separating the juror or jurors from their own personal likes and dislikes. I’m aware of these problems each time I enter a contest just like the hundreds of other participants….and still we enter to compete against one another.
Another piece of knowledge we all share is that winning does not mean we are any better at being an artist than the other entrants. It only means our work connected with the juror(s) on a different level than the other work. Maybe we got lucky with one particular drawing or painting. We still may not be as good at drawing as another person. We may struggle to mix that particular color or we may have no idea how someone else goes about the process of casting plastic. Whatever our chosen process, we are simply striving to pass important information along to others. When that connection is made, be it in the form of winning a contest or having an 8 year old tell you they love your sculpture, it feels like victory. And think about it: that 8 year old had a room filled with art to choose from. She probably wouldn’t describe that choice as a competition but by definition that’s exactly what it was.