I just read in the New York Times about a pianist who received a most unusual award (the excerpts on the site are amazing, particularly the Bach):
The award, which will officially be announced on Thursday morning, is music’s answer to the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants. And it is something of an anti-Van Cliburn Competition, a tacit rejection of the hoopla, bloodlust and horse-race quality of the international competition circuit.
It is administered by the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo. Nominations are solicited; an anonymous committee sifts through commercial and noncommercial recordings, some of them surreptitiously obtained; committee members secretly slip into dozens of concerts — sometimes keeping to the balcony or hiding their faces with programs — to assess the performers, who are not supposed to know they are under consideration.
It seems to me that a lot of what we give to award merit involves making people who have lives jumping through all sorts of stupid hoops, and consistently fails to do justice to the vast amount of excellence there is out there. I realize I’m talking about what seems to be two different things: firstly, the awarding of honors; secondly, making sure people who are accomplished have serious opportunities that await them. But notice how closely those things are related, and note how we dump those issues under the same class, “giving.” And what is “giving?” Well, there are a million charitable causes, so the same people trying to make a living as an artist are in direct competition in donors’ minds with people who are dying in impoverished countries. And of course, one cannot complain about any of this because “giving” implies that no money or honor ever need be given in recognition of necessity or excellence: our society has a moral right to let the arts wither and children starve.
I sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not. I’m more like – something is strange about all this. It’s not that we don’t care, a lot of us do care. And it’s not like we’re simply materialistic and selfish: we do give, we just have weird criteria for giving, notions that don’t look like they’ve ever been rationally accountable. The overwhelming sense I get listening to people that take up more extreme positions as a hobby is that there are a lot of people who really don’t know how to work with others, or what a “social grace” might mean (i.e. making sure when you meet someone they feel welcome, asking them if there’s stuff you can do for them that’ll help, etc.). It’s like a lot of us are really isolated, only developing a sense of what’s happening around one – maybe even feeling like one is “in touch” with others – through media.
– And yeah, before you ask, it is possible to meet people every day and work with them and have no clue how to deal with people. That’s definitely a form of what I’m calling “isolation” above. –
The way the award above was given is an example of something I want to see more of. That’s the world I want to live in, where people watch out for each other in order to do something nice. I could care less for the competition part, although I’m in agreement that this is a good way to foster excellence. I think it’s a good way to foster something more important, a notion where the common good is organic, where people don’t have to yell at each other in order to get basic needs met or prevent their rights from being trampled. One of the things I actually like as a blogger is that one has to beg – you have to make clear to others what your needs are, and be clear how they can help you. In the process, you learn how you can help them and usually end up doing so. That’s not mere “utility,” not in this day and age, given what is communicated.