The past year has been a curious one for cultural prizes. The Booker, when the judges failed to agree on a single winner, ended up being split between two authors, in a move that broke the rules and has been widely seen as a fudge. The Turner was upended, not by its judges but by its participants. The shortlisted artists asked to be considered as a collective; the result was that this year there were effectively four winners. Other prizes have seen winners splitting their winnings – author Olivia Laing, for example, voiced a similar sentiment to that put forward by the Turner artists, when she won the James Tait Black memorial prize for fiction this summer. Her novel, Crudo, she said, was written “against an era of walls and borders, winners and losers. Art doesn’t thrive like that and I don’t think people do either. We thrive on community, solidarity and mutual support.”
It is too early to declare the death of arts prizes. But they are certainly showing some cracks. The James Tait Black is the oldest British literary award, dating back to 1919. But the most celebrated awards, the Booker and the Turner, date from the late 20th century – 1969 and 1984 respectively – and were made household names by institutional or industry backing, sponsorship and a presence on TV. The Costa prize, which started as the Whitbread, was founded in 1971; a host of more recent book prizes have sprung up to counter perceived shortcomings of the Booker, such as the Women’s prize for fiction (1996) and the Goldsmiths prize (2013), specifically for work making new strides in novelistic form. In 1999, the Baillie Gifford slotted into the ranks to reward non-fiction.
All these prizes are, effectively, marketing exercises. That does not make them bad things – they have all brought extraordinary voices to the attention of the public. The Turner, during the 1990s, was cloaked in the glamorous and supposedly scandalous trappings of the Young British Artists – and the tabloids lapped it up. More usefully, the annual Turner exhibition has provided a broad audience with a useful showcase of the most significant British contemporary art, and a discussion point. In 2018, the Booker did precisely what a prize is supposed to do: it brought a superb but at the time not widely read work, Anna Burns’s Milkman, to popular attention.
Today, though, artists and judges alike are more attuned to the difficulty in choosing “the best” when all artists palpably do not have equal access to the starting lines; when “the best” is a subjective and contingent category; when the authority of all kinds of institutions, and not just cultural prizes, is on the wane; and when artists competing like racehorses feels out of tune with the times in a way that it did not during the more individualistic Thatcher and Blair eras. Prizes thrive only when people actually believe in their value; prizes thrive when people actually want to compete. It is possible that the era of the prize is on the wane. If it is, different ways need to be found to talk about the most exciting books and art.