Some Uses Of Narratives

  • Whether the current controversy about the lack of black nominees for major awards among this year’s Oscar nominations is a tempest in a neti pot — a one-time statistical oddity on the path of real progress — or a genuine outcropping of pervasive and unacknowledged racism, it does raise questions about how we decide which works of art, and which artists, deserve formal recognition: whether (in the present instance) a desire on the part of the public and the industry to increase diversity should affect the evaluation process. The charge was that performances of excellence were neglected because of bias in the voting body, and the counter-argument was that the overlooked performances and films were simply not as good — or at least not better than — those that got the nod.
    Such questions have always haunted awards for creative work, if only because awards for artistic worth lack the inarguable metrics of sports or politics. An awards decision that serves a political or social purpose won’t be based solely on aesthetic or artistic-value considerations, but decisions made on on equity or moral grounds can usually be justified on some sort of aesthetic grounds.
  • The realm of modern media has such vast and far-reaching power that its prize-giving and awards-bestowing have to take into account the social effects that will certainly ripple outward from whatever choices are made. But the attempt to consciously fix a lack or an injustice can sometimes draw attention not to the lack but to the attempt itself, the raising up by fiat of certain artists by those with the power to do so. The run of recent literary awards given in Britain to people of color, including the Forward Prize to Claudia Rankine and the Man Booker Prize to the Jamaican author Marlon James caused the American poet Morgan Parker to ponder unintended consequences: “When one of us wins, we all win. That’s the mantra… When writers of color become a filled diversity quota, it’s a matter of time before we become a token.” Inclusion can become exclusion.
  • Should the social value of a book or a film or a performance matter for awards? If we think an award for a work of art will do good, to what extent do we have to know (or believe) the work or the performance is also worthy in itself, as a work of art? Alfred Nobel’s will, which established his prizes, said they must go to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” Such benefit was easier to determine in physics and chemistry than in literature, where Nobel said the prize had to go to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” So what was that ideal direction, exactly? It was later interpreted to mean that the prize should go to works that pictured or promoted a “wide-hearted humanity” — in other words work that touched universal themes; that brought us together; that could do work in the world, however understood. More recently the committee has — like the Oscars — been sensitive to questions of diversity, choosing from a wide variety of cultures and languages, sometimes to the puzzlement of even the widely-read, and can seem more dutiful than enthusiastic.
  • Marc Bernardin in the Hollywood Reporter sees the present problem of the exclusion of black actors and film professionals from work and awards as related to the kinds of films that feature actors of color. “There currently are two types of movies that get diverse casts,” he writes, popcorn movies and homework movies. Popcorn movies — “big shiny genre movies” that sell well and loom large at the cineplex — can have “United Colors of Benetton call sheets” but aren’t generally in line for acting or directing Oscars. Homework movies are the serious pictures about admirable people of color, like Selma or 12 Years a Slave, or that teach (white) audiences about the African-American experience and historical struggles. Homework movies are more likely to get the nod, but perhaps are less beloved generally (and remembered less fondly) than the ones made solely for delight.
    The good just for itself/good for you axis has been in negotiation since Plato, who wanted no stories told but allegories of virtue and the lives of great men; it was a necessary part of socialization, and qualities of beauty, wonder, and fun had nothing to do with it. Vladimir Nabokov, who should have been but never was awarded a Nobel, had no use for what he called the Literature of Ideas, and regarded the great novels of the realist tradition — Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina — not as indictments of their societies or even about society; they were great fairy tales, to be read for the same reason we tell fairy tales to children: purely for delight. It’s the kind of narrative art insisted on in the proudly flaunted motto of MGM: Ars gratia artis.
  • Can art be made that is at once powerful as aesthetic object and as force for change? The Big Short and Spotlight are up for awards this year; both could meet that standard. Is there a reason to give such a work — or performance, or TV series — an award over a purely brilliant aesthetic triumph? Mad Max: Fury Road is such a work, and it’s also on the ballot. The same impulse can produce equal value by different means: the magical and sweetly optimistic Beasts of the Southern Wild (four nominations); the fierce and nightmarish Beasts of No Nation (none).
  • Meanwhile Will Smith (not nominated this year for his role in the rather homeworky Concussion) announced that he was pleased with “how quickly and aggressively the Academy responded,” noting the Academy’s plans to overhaul its membership, which includes himself. And Neil Gaiman announced that Ricky Whittle will play Shadow Moon in the Starz adaptation of his epic American Gods, which will likely be neither popcorn nor homework. Shadow’s race is unclear through much of the novel, though on screen it certainly won’t be. Incidentally, if any producer with ambitions to increase diversity in media is looking for a project, Gaiman’s ANansi Boys offers  a large cast of complex characters, American, African, British and Caribbean; it’s good, though whether it can be made to do good I can’t say.