The AIB Art Prize was announced the other week. Anne Cleary and Denis Connolly were the winners, with runners up being Sinead Ní Mhaonaigh, Sonia Shiel and Louise Manifold. This isn’t exactly news, as it was announced almost a month ago; and definitely isn’t news to me, as I was one of the judges. While this makes me biased, obviously, I do think the AIB Art Prize is a Very Good Thing. How can a well thought out award, that supports artists at a crucial stage in their careers, provides funds to create a publication, and is based on a collaborative application between a gallery and the artists themselves, so there’s an idea of a project, and commitment to the project involved too, be anything but a good thing? Despite all these Good Things, I’m still, however, a little ambivalent about the whole Prize thing.
There’s pros and cons. On the cons side, my problem is that the idea of a winner predicated a loser, or losers. And somehow, it seems to be worse to be shortlisted and not win than not be shortlisted at all. This came home to me in a very forceful way this summer in a Polocrosse tournament (bear with me here – Polocrosse is often called ‘hurling on horseback’ and is great fun, and particularly satisfying when there aren’t other outlets for formalised aggression and waving sticks around at great speed in your life). Never a great one for sport in school, I hadn’t really got my head around the whole team / winning / losing thing, until I found out how it’s a far better feeling to win the losers’ playoffs, than lose in the final. Even going up to get your blue rosette – that screams “second", and “also ran" – doesn’t make up for that final defeat. Years ago, I remember hearing an Olympic Silver Medallist being asked: “how does it feel to lose?" and I didn’t understand it then – but I do now.
Some say prizes are divisive, and that we shouldn’t pit artists against one another, especially as you can’t make absolute judgment calls when it’s a question of aesthetics or concepts…but I don’t really buy into this, because I think competition is one of the underpinning forces that shape the contemporary art world from art school on through the gallery and exhibition systems (as well as life) – even when that competition is just with oneself to force the best out of your ideas and creativity.
The pros include – obviously – the money. But prizes are also a vital way to connect the work of contemporary artists to a wider public. The Turner Prize is an obvious example here, as are the Man Booker Prize and the IMPAC Award in the world of literature. The idea that an independent team is making judgments, and that these will be evident in an award, gives space for people to make their own assessments, agree and disagree, and the results of this space are to be seen in the sales and profile boost that all the shortlisted writers and artists get, plus the knock-on boost that literature and art receive at the same time.
It’s always a cliché for a judge to say “any one of the shortlisted people could have won" and “it was a tough decision," though clichés become clichés from overuse because they are true. Nonetheless, the nature of awards means winners are produced; I just wish there was some way of taking the sting out of that blue rosette. I also wish – even more than this – that there were similarly effective ways of engaging the public with contemporary art, and of mediating ideas of excellence and success, without (a) referring to record prices or celebrity clients, and (b) making it into a competition. At the AIB Award ‘do’, it was announced that notwithstanding the well known difficulties afflicting all our banks, the award will continue – and long may it do so – because despite my vacillations here, I’m still firmly convinced that it has become a significant supporter of the arts here, helps boost the profile of the arts, as well as individual careers, and for these reasons alone it is a Very Good Thing.