Leading Article: Literary Prizes: You Just Can't Put Them Down

The Independent (London, England), June 6, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Leading Article: Literary Prizes: You Just Can't Put Them Down


This is getting silly. The Orange Prize for fiction by women, awarded this week to the Canadian writer Anne Michaels, has itself been shortlisted for a prize for the best sponsorship of the arts by business. There are now more than 300 literary prizes in the British Isles, nearly one for every day of the year. There are prizes for painting, drawing, sculpting, installing and displaying people as exhibits, not to mention music, film, theatre and any other non-functional human activity that business people in suits can be persuaded is Art. And now there are prizes for prizes.

It is all part of the sea-change in the relationship between business and the arts over the past 15 years. Over the two decades before that, from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Eighties, the arts got used to the idea that the state would have a role in funding new work. What was seen as worthwhile was often anti-commercial, oppositional, experimental, and respectable businesses would not want to be associated with it, ran the train of thought. So the taxpayer should pay for what was deemed necessary for society's cultural health, as if the vast majority of taxpayers would be sympathetic or even interested.

In the United States, taxpayers tick a box on their annual tax return if they think $3 of their taxes should go to pay for the election campaigns of presidential candidates. Hardly anybody in the home of democracy ticks "yes". If we tried a similar scheme in the UK for public funding of the arts, the response would probably be about the same. So the Arts Council built an edifice of committees of the Great and Good (Luvvies Section), informed by an unstable mix of backward-looking traditionalism and fashion-prone radicalism, on the vacuum where popular support should have been. But many in the arts resisted the advent of big-league business sponsorship on the grounds that it would be worse. It was the thin end of the wedge, it was argued. Companies would only support "safe" and unadventurous work, then they would try to censor what they sponsored. The next thing would be Hamlet coming on stage with the sponsor's name on the back of his jacket, or adding the words, "Brought to you by Bigco International" to the end of his soliloquies. It has not happened. In the theatre and opera particularly, sponsorship has been the kiss of life, and on the whole tastefully done. Arts sponsorship is big business, and big companies clearly think it is good for business. It is in the literary field that it all seems to be getting out of hand. Every big-name company seems to want its big name on a prize. One group of arts journalists was recently invited to discuss the subject by a public relations company carrying out research for a British multinational. Only after their tape-recorded discussion, for which they each received pounds 50 in a brown envelope, were they told the name of the client, which was thinking of sponsoring yet another cultural prize. Other companies have not handled their public relations so forcefully.

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Leading Article: Literary Prizes: You Just Can't Put Them Down
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