Last Sunday, I attended the awards ceremony for Vermont’s Scholastic Art & Writing Contest at the Brattleboro Art and Museum Center.
The art and writing on display was fantastic; no wonder The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are considered “the most prestigious recognition program for creative teens in grades 7 – 12.” These kids have talent!
The museum was buzzing with teenage energy as kids and their parents from all over the state saw their work hanging on the museum walls or read award-winning writing published in binders for all to read.
At noon, the crowd sat for the ceremony, which included exhortations from both Danny Lichtenfeld, the museum director, and from Roberto Lugo, a potter, social activist, spoken word poet and educator. Each in his own way, they told the kids to keep breaking the rules and fixing social and global problems they’re inheriting from us.
Lugo’s remarks were, well, remarkable: In a combination of rap, poetry and prose, he conveyed the story of his trajectory from urban poverty to academic and artistic achievement in language bordering on song – and received a standing ovation. Truly inspirational.
Then came the awards. Those earning Honorable mention were asked to stand; then the Silver Key winners; finally, the Gold Key winners came forward for a group photo.
This is where the event went sour for me. I wished all three groups had a photo op.
I attended the awards ceremony because this was the second year I’ve been a writing judge. Even though judges are given guidelines, which are very helpful, the process is still, ultimately, subjective. But more than that, I wanted the Honorable Mentions and Silver Keys to stand in front of the audience and have their photos taken in acknowledgement of their efforts. I didn’t want the awards to be quite so stratifying.
This has brought the entire enterprise of contests for artistic creation to a head for me. Even though my first novel won a prestigious award, I’m suspect of contests turning literature and visual arts into a kind of artistic World Series.
Artistic expression is not a horserace; it’s neither limited nor competitive. And while the Scholastic Awards are meant to acknowledge excellence and encourage youthful talent, I fear that the way in which we do so will backfire, on both the developing artists and writers and on the very essence of artistic expression, which creates its own rules, shows us a new way of seeing, and tells its own story.
Is making art its own reward? What do you think about writing contests and awards?