Monday, December 09, 2019

The Case of Turner Prize: Are Too Many Ties Devaluing the Concept of Competition?

CNN reports on the winners of this year's Turner Prize, an annual prize presented to a British visual artist. All of the finalists asked to be given the prize jointly, as a group, and so all of the contenders "won" in a competition in which no one lost.

This, combined with what some people see as a pattern in recent years, has irked some people. These people see this "tie" and equate it with the concept of spoiled Millennials who get "participation trophies" or prizes for trying. What has happened to cutthroat competition and actual winning.

The Arguments For and Against

The arguments against the Turner prize tie, in this case, are that the refusal to announce a single winner is indicative of snowflakes, who can't handle being losers. That too many winners devalues the concept of winning, and of competition in general. And that it lacks drama.

The arguments in favor are rather specific to this event. The artists decided that their works were complementary, rather than competitive, and did not feel that a competition was the right way to judge them. That felt that they had already "won" by having reached the shortlist for the prize. Alex Farquharson, the director of the Tate Britain gallery which organizes the prize, argues that times have changed and that competition may not be the right format to judge these kinds of works, anymore. Andrew Russeth, a writer for the Daily Mail, writes "This notion of having artists compete in public and one walk away the winner feels a little demeaning and unpleasant."

Some Points to Consider

As for the arguments against, it is important to divide up those activities in which competition really brings out the most effort and the best results versus those in which we have stuck absolute competitions because we were too boring or lazy to provide a better framework. The Olympics doesn't have a single winner, because we don't make the downhill skier compete against the figure skater; the disciplines and forms are too different to compare. So maybe, when it comes to art competitions with very loose frameworks, it is silly to compare different kinds of entries in different subjects, and with different intents. Maybe the Turner Prize is overdue for a restructure.

When it comes to "participation trophies", there are two hands here. On the one hand, participation trophies are not just a Millennial issue; that is lazy, biased journalism, and the usual "look down at the next generation" attitude of Boomers who have suddenly publicized a concept that has existed for generations. Everyone who joins the army (and doesn't screw up too badly) gets stripes and awards during and after service. Everyone who shows up for work gets paid, and often gets bonuses, even if they aren't the number one worker. Even the specific concept of participation trophies is a century old.

On the other hand, participation trophies are not "everyone gets a trophy". They are, unless severely mishandled, a reward for having put in effort. In the same event, different people, i.e. winners, get specific prizes, while everyone who at least put in effort gets the participation trophy. The recipients of these trophies are not morons, and they know that trophies for winning and trophies for participation have different values. But studies show that encouraging effort is better motivation than acknowledging talent. When you tell someone they have won, they stop trying; when you tell someone that they are smart, they often find a way to not be, act, or appear smart. When you tell someone that you see their hard work and you think it is worthwhile, they may end up trying harder, and, sometimes, they may eventually win or get smarter.

However, announcing the Turner Prize as a tie is lazy; if you set up a competition, you should not change the rules in the middle when you realize that the competition was the wrong format. They should have, originally, defined better categories that were more conductive to direct competition, or they should have defined goals for which prizes could be given to all, or a list, of people who met these goals. But, since they didn't, they should have awarded a winner and let the artists figure out how to deal with this.

Competition is not inherently evil. It brings out efforts and results that would not happen without it. When mishandled, it can bring out people too focused on the goal; they might even short circuit the permitted methods to get to that goal. Winning, when handled well, can be a goal or a stepping stone to more effort. Losing, when handled well, is not something to be afraid of. Competition against others should always be, in parallel, competition against ourselves. And for that, a job well done results in a self-award that does not require any external acknowledgement.