Eye on the Prizes: Extrinsic Motivation in the Arts



With the Walters Prize 2014 winner to be announced in October, I’m sure questions [read: rage-fuelled letters to The Herald] are going to be raised about the value of art prizes in New Zealand, whether we need such prizes and why the arts can’t seem to fund themselves.

Neither can the America’s Cup either it seems, but that’s something for another post.

On the one hand, in awarding prizes for the arts, we are elevating the status of the artist but on the other, we are reinforcing the idea that although the artist presents quality work, he or she cannot seem to make a sustainable living from it.

Where else in other vocations, is this the case?

It’s a difficult and unresolved area.  Arts prizes go some way back in Western Art – with the Prix de Rome as one such example of when artistic results were strongly tied to extrinsic reward.   David tried to top himself vying for that award, such was the intensity of the competition and assured accolades and power from winning it.

What I am interested in, and am attempting to discover via the medium of a thesis, is the way the art award impacts on artistic approach.

Put simply, does an artist, knowing there is a huge financial gain involved at the end, modify or adapt their style to suit the brief of the art award?  No, it’s not ‘cheating’ as such.  Surely if there wasn’t a such a lull in regular pay for artists, they wouldn’t feel the need to consider the art award for the financial gain anyway.

I’m wondering how the concept of judgement, first and second, good and bad, affect an artist, who would in normal circumstances work toward solo showings at a dealer gallery and rely on good (or bad) reviews and publicity to garner audiences for their work, and of course sales of artworks to fill the fridge and put petrol in the car.  I guess it can be that unromantic.

I know David obsessed over the brief of the Prix de Rome.  I mean, it’s all a bit different now, since artists are not being judged on the best version of a subject, but instead being judged on how ‘good’ their take on contemporary art is.

And who decides?  A panel of experts is set down to reveal to the clueless public notions of ‘quality’ and ‘contemporary’.  In the case of the Walters Prize, the works are selected from previous shows from the four finalists and in that respect, the art is not ‘made to spec’.  But it does need to be reconfigured to fit the Auckland City Art Gallery space and presumably a tight brief about display, appropriateness, visibility and reach.

An international judge, presumably, the ‘fresh pair of eyes’, but also a person who has achieved unspeakable feats of curation in their field is choppered in to select an overall winner.

Who decides?  How does the presence of money prizes affect art making in New Zealand?

Does the motivation begin to crowd out?  That is, once money is the reward, not prestige, or self-motivation, self-determination, or that rarefied concept of doing it for the love, does the quality of the art diminish?

I’m keen to find out. John Street coins a phrase nicely in saying that the arts prize is ‘Showbusiness of a Serious Kind’.

My thesis for MLitt is due December 2015 on this topic.


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