December 23, 2005

Menard is right on

In an article on literary prizes in the latest New Yorker, Louis Menard offers a bit of lambent prose that skewers a number of hypocrisies at once:

[James] English [author of The Economy of Prestige] interprets the rise of the prize as part of the "struggle for power to produce value, which means power to confer value on that which does not intrinsically possess it." In an information, or "symbolic," economy, in other words, the goods themselves are physically worthless: they are mere print on a page or code on a disk. What makes them valuable is the recognition that they are valuable. This recognition is not automatic and intuitive; it has to be constructed. A work of art has to circulate through a sub-economy of exchange operated by a large and growing class of middlemen: publishers, curators, producers, publicists, philanthropists, foundation officers, critics, professors, and so on. The prize system, with its own cadre of career administrators and judges, is one of the ways in which value gets "added on" to a work. Of course, we like to think that the recognition of artistic excellence is intuitive. We don’t like to think of cultural value as something that requires middlemen —people who are not artists themselves— in order to emerge. We prefer to believe that truly good literature or music or film announces itself. Which is another reason that we need prizes: so that we can insist that we don’t really need them.

Posted by oook at December 23, 2005 01:05 PM