The Economy of Prestige

The Economy of Prestige; Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value by James English. Harvard University Press, 2008, paper.

This is a fascinating look at prizes, awards, and festivals in the arts and letters. James English discusses mostly prizes in literature, music, and film.  He argues that the awards ‘economy’ is a system of non-monetary symbolic transactions, enabling the artist or author and the institutions that award and receive these prizes to engage in a collective project of value production.

English mostly defends the system. Prizes such as the Oscar, the Nobel, the Pulitzer, National Book Awards, and the Man Booker, uphold a long tradition valuing and honoring creative individuals.  But it is true that the award ceremonies are often farce, circus, embarrassment. All those fancy gowns worn by starlets hoping to be seen. The crass commercialism of the ceremony.

There are precedents from ancient Greece and eighteenth-century Europe, but the establishment of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901 is the beginning of the contemporary economy of prestige. It remains the bench-mark of all cultural prizes. Alfred Nobel’s prize was duplicated by the Priz Concourt in France in 1903 and the Pulitzer Prize a few years later in the U.S. And so on. And on. Prizes, awards, festivals, biennales, halls of fame, etc. are now literally too numerous to count.

Yet this field of cultural prizes is not overgrown, English argues. In fact, opportunities or gaps for new prizes are continually being opened. For example, various minorities or new cultural movements have established prizes because they did not feel represented by the existing field of cultural awards.

English contends that this prize economy has been a mixed blessing to the arts and letters in the emerging, post-colonial countries. Generally their films and novels have received international prizes as a result of their popularity in the old imperial metropolises. But are these prize-winners the best representatives of the arts from the former colonies? The Nobel Prize given to Wole Soyinka in 1986 was controversial in his Nigeria. His Euro-modernism was one of several directions in which Nigerian literature was moving. True, Africa had long been neglected by the Swedish Academy. But why Soyinka, other than his popularity outside of Nigeria.

The administrative costs of most cultural prizes far exceed the cash prize itself. Administrators have an immense job. They must select a final few from the many, many nominations. English estimates that 98% of the selection process is done before the publicity acknowledged judges and juries commence their work. Professional readers, sometimes even the office staff, “prejudge,”- decide – who makes the final cut. Among other criteria, they must look at whether potential recipients are well enough known to give the prize credibility.

The economic capital generated by the awards depend upon the prestige of the judges as well. They have to be well-known and respected in their field.

Occasionally a recipient decides that it is beneath his or her cultural status or against his principles to accept a prize. English talks about a strategy of condescension that allows those who reject prizes nevertheless “to remain in play.” Julie Andrews, who refused a Tony Award in 1996, is said to have staged that refusal so as to publicize her then current Broadway show. Perhaps the judges were not worthy of judging her talent.

Andrews can afford to refuse a prize or two. She has many under her belt. Michael Jackson had won no fewer than 240 awards before he died.

Ironies abound. Most commonly the prize winners are already well known. They are acknowledged as having indisputable merit, hence in little need of this symbolic transaction. In fact the prize can gain cultural capital for the awarding organization, normally a non-profit, from the well-known recipient, rather than the other way around.

Tony Morrison is an avid collector of prizes. She thought she was going to collect a National Book Award in 1987 for her highly praised novel, Beloved. Instead the judges awarded it to Larry Heinemann, a relatively unknown author, for his novel, Paco’s Story, about a Vietnam veteran. A scandal ensued. Morrison’s friends took out ads in The New York Times demanding that she receive a compensatory Pulitzer Prize, which she did the next year. With some help from her friends.

Many thought that this quest for a prize on Morrison’s behalf was unseemly. The rules of the game are that you should appear to be indifferent to prizes, not really needing their validation.

English is taken by the ability of the metaphor of economic behavior to illuminate the prize economy and its consumers. He makes it work.

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