“Merit”“best” — these value judgements are so previous, such ancient hat.

As of 24 April 2011 we have a declared, frankly postmodern and officially sanctioned new standard for prize-judging works of art: it’s a lottery.

Sulman Prize judge, artist Richard Bell explained: “Like every prize, it’s a lottery. I couldn’t make up my mind so I did it by lottery.” He tossed a coin.

Writers get it. Kiran Desai, winner of the Man Booker in 2006 with The Inheritance of Loss, says: “Awards are such a lottery.” A.S. Byatt, whose novel Possession won the Man Booker in 1990, knows whereof she speaks: “I’ve won it and judged it and it’s a lottery.

Beyond Good and Elvis Evil Bad

So, dear old absolutists — if you still believe in good-better-best, or even good and bad/ugly and beautiful — it’s time, time finally to pack the kit bag and take the bat and ball and go home. It’s over, done like a dunny, so pour a scotch and, yes yes yes, geddoverit.

The fantastic, yet non-fiction, full-fat furore-farce is recapped below, but I think we can hurry on to the logical conclusion. Now we know the truth of the matter (and AGNSW director Edmund Capon’s crippling modesty prevents him from accepting credit) we can go the next step. No longer will judges have to own up to embarrassing winners (those dreaded dinner parties where they have to defend themselves); or to pretend to have read all the tedious books, or to claim any musical or art knowledge at all.

There’d be no need to think about comparative skill issues, about conceptual concerns, about historical frames — no need for connoisseurial levels of judgement. It would be free. It would be pure. It would be truly democratic; a prize we deserve.

Le Methode Tosser de le Bell

For future prizes — Miles Franklin, Archibald, the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the McClelland Sculpture Award, the Australian Music Prize etc — we can just key in the entrants’ names and have the ‘puter do its random thing — with lots of spinning lights and whirring sound effects for the cameras. (The works themselves would merely be registered; winners to be displayed/acclaimed later.)

Or we could use the more ceremonial Bell Method: All entrants’ names written on a piece of paper, folded and randomly distributed across a surface. The guest judge (the chancemeister) is blindfolded and spun round, and then tosses the coin (we could call it The Kylie); the ballot name on which it lands is declared the winner. We can make it really Aussie with full-on two-up style betting which will (1) finally make a cultural prize exciting and one we can all relate to, and (2) everyone can be a winner.

Because, winners understand: I should be so lucky / Lucky lucky lucky

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WHAT HAPPENED:

“Like every prize, it’s a lottery.”

When Peter Smeeth was told how his painting — The Artist’s Fate, about artistic rejection (right) — had won this year’s Sulman Prize, he said: “It is a bit deflating … I certainly would like to think I won it on merit, not on the toss of a coin.” Artist Richard Bell was the sole judge. The Archibald and Wynne (landscape) Prizes were judged by the eleven trustees of the AGNSW, currently including three artists.

“When it was time to choose a winner, Bell confirmed that he had written the names of four artists whose work he liked on separate pieces of paper. He wrote the names of another four whose work he disliked on more pieces of paper. Then he scattered the lot on the table and tossed a coin.” (The coin fell on the winner.)

Can’t recall his face, but the name rings a Bell

Bell picked 29 finalists out of 633 entries — over two-thirds of his selections contained animals. He said: “I like animals. I was tempted to put in all animals. I was going to make that the criteria but I had to choose some of my friends.”

”It won. That’s all that matters … I would have liked it to be one of my friends. I would have much preferred that. But I gave these other dudes a crack at it.”

Here is Bell’s best-known work: Scientia E Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem) 2003 (Winner, 20th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award). The embedded legend — the “art” kernel of the work — reads: “Aboriginal Art — It’s A White Thing”. Bell’s other work often has type over colour patterns, or take off Lichtenstein’s pop cartoons with alternate texts. (A gallery of Bell‘s work.) (Oh, and a gallery of Smeeth‘s portraits.)

Australian Art — It’s a Capon Thing: “No problem”

Bell was chosen as judge by the AGNSW’s trustees, as advised by its director, the mousy, accountant-like, soft-spoken scholar, Edmund Capon, who was “not surprised by Bell’s judging method.”

”He’s a stirrer by nature and I’ve got no problem with that at all … it’s very much a matter of individual taste and instinct and the kind of aesthetic, wit and humour of the individual artist. And I like that,” he said.

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The boring moral of the story

I’m adding this note because a friend got in my ear. *sigh* So the moral of the story is:

Would you choose your family doctor, accountant, real estate agent, kids’ school, divorce lawyer, or even a restaurant by tossing a coin? Most people probably wouldn’t (we’ve all gone plastic anyway), and that’s because those choices seem to be a bit Important. Unlike, say … yeah yeah you got it. A parting thought… would anyone think to judge MasterChef in this way?


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