What are awards for? More precisely, what should they be for?
John McWhorter recently argued in The New York Times in favor of a retroactive Pulitzer Prize for Duke Ellington, who was snubbed for the journalism and arts award in 1965. My encyclopedic ignorance about jazz entitles me to have no opinion whatsoever about this attempt at raising an issue.
One sentence in McWhorter’s essay, however, deserves special attention: “We assume that Pulitzers are awarded to work that qualifies as for the ages, that pushes the envelope, that suggests not just cleverness but genius.”
Do we really assume that?
When the Pulitzer board or governing body of other major prizes like the Oscars, Emmys, Tonys and so on decides upon the recipient of an award, what message is it trying to send?
I agree with McWhorter. An award for best whatever of the year should first and foremost go to the best work in that category. A close-second consideration â€” my opinion, obviously â€” should favor work that is transformative, original, different. Judging by lists of previous prize winners, however, some people disagree â€” particularly those who decide the winners of these contests.
While the media obsesses over awards and prizes handed out to its fellow elites, such competitions are part of life across every social stratum, from elementary-school best-citizen awards to 4-H contests to merit badges to best employee of the month at a fast-food joint to your boss’s annual review.