I see in the Washington Post that Neil Simon, author of The Odd Couple, has won the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, an award of whose existence I was hitherto unaware. No doubt there are many such awards, since there seems to be nothing more popular than the handing out of prizes, a phenomenon first remarked by Lewis Carroll:
However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out “The race is over!” and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, “But who has won?”
This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, “EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.”
So it seems, and most especially when it comes to the arts, be they high or low. Of the giving of prizes there is no end, and it’s hard to think of a single one, however ostensibly prestigious, that hasn’t been devalued by the promiscuity and/or lack of discrimination with which it is handed out.
I’m not here to beat up on Neil Simon–I’ve done that enough in my Wall Street Journal drama column in the past couple of years. Instead, I want to ask a question that seems to me obvious but turns out not to be: has there ever been a prize in the arts that was worth having? Is it possible for any institution to give an award for artistic achievement that has real significance?
Looking back over the long history of such prizes, it strikes me that even the best-laid and most idealistic institutional plans are inevitably subverted over time by non-artistic considerations. Sooner or later the temptation to inflate the currency in one way or another becomes irresistible, and before you know it you’re either out of business (the Leventritt Competition) or no longer taken seriously (the Kennedy Center Honors).
More to the point, I have a feeling that the reason why awards in the arts tend irresistibly toward irrelevance is that they contradict the essential nature of art. The fact is that there are only two “prizes” worth having, short-term success and long-term acclaim, neither of which can be conveyed by any means other than the uncoerced consensus of the relevant public.
Yet as self-evident as that might seem, there is some irresistible impulse built into the human psyche that makes us keep handing out awards anyway. Indeed, I myself am connected with the giving of three fairly well-known ones, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards, the National Medal of Arts, and the NEA’s Jazz Masters Fellowships, and I like to think that all three are worth getting.
Am I kidding myself? Or is my continuing involvement in the prize-giving process simply an expression of my idealistic belief that it is somehow possible to second-guess the mysterious workings of posterity? Beats me. All I know is that most artists like to get awards, especially when they’re accompanied by a check. The trouble with the verdict of posterity, after all, is that you’re never around to hear it, any more than you get to read your own obituaries. (Go here to read my past reflections on this grim subject.)
Few of us, it seems, are sufficiently self-confident not to long for the reassurance of immediate appreciation, meretricious though it may be, and we long for it all the more as we grow older. As Orson Welles once observed to Peter Bogdanovich, “A bad word from a colleague can darken a whole day. We need encouragement a lot more than we admit, even to ourselves.” I need it, too, and I’ve never won any prizes worth mentioning.
So, I’m sure, does Neil Simon, who has lived long enough to see his style of comedy go out of fashion. That’s why I don’t begrudge his having received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which was previously awarded to Richard Pryor, Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin, Lorne Michaels, and Steve Martin. A motley crew, to put it mildly, and I doubt that any of them has done or will ever do anything that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the writing of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn–but so be it. That’s what posterity is for. Today can take care of itself. That’s what prizes are for.