Fear of Music: The Price of Art

By Devin King

It’s said that someone suggested to Winston Churchill that he should cut funding to the arts in order to pay for the war effort. Churchill then replied, “Then what would we be fighting for?” Even though there’s not much proof that conversation ever happened, it’s still a good sentiment. This quotation illustrates that one of the hallmarks of a great society – indeed, maybe even humankind – is respect and appreciation for the arts. We are lucky then, to have the Polaris Music Prize as a means to recognize talented Canadian artists. This recognition is problematic though, on a few levels.
The first problem revolves around the criteria for winning the Polaris Prize. The criteria listed quite obtuse, with nominations going to acts who are “creative” and “diverse” as well as those which feature the “highest artistic integrity.”
Imagine taking all of your CDs and ranking them in order of creativity. It might be easy to separate the extremes—say, Len’s You Can’t Stop the Bum Rush on one end and Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot it in People on the other. But even then, it’s problematic because there is no set universal criteria for great music. One of the problems of “great” music is that the definition of great is largely created by the critics who are not necessarily the audience. (Elijiah Wald discusses this in his book How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll.) So while Len might not have the artistic integrity required to be a Polaris Prize winner, a lot of people once seemed to think their music was pretty good.
The Junos or Grammys are often heavily influenced by sales success, so awards given have a certain mathematical definition to them, even if people don’t agree with the outcome. But in the case of Polaris, the parameters are more are less “artisticness.” Maybe separating Len and Broken Social Scene is easy, but how do we decide if The Weeknd is more artistic than Neil Young?
The second problem involves receiving a financial prize. As a teacher, I believe that if someone does something wrong, then the consequence should match the mistake. So if you are caught spray painting a car, it would make more sense for you to hold a free car wash as a consequence than be made to write lines. I think the same might be true of positive actions as well.
This year, the big prize is $30,000, which is $10,000 more than last year. Additionally, every artist or band nominated for the short list will receive $2,000. It’s a lot of money that can provide lots of opportunities for bands. You can record a charity single like 2009 winners Fucked Up, support other bands financially like 2006 winner Owen Pallett or fade into utter obscurity like Patrick Watson in 2007.
$30,000 is a lot of free money to give away. Granted, winners have shown how they can use that money to support their communities, both in the musical and non-musical realms, but I don’t see the connection that means that great music deserves increased wealth. It certainly would allow for the further creation of great art, but offering up the cheque seems like a philosophical disconnect between why we make art and how we reward art.
It seems like a prize more in line with the parameters of a great artist outlined by Polaris would simply be recognition. And sure, recognition will probably lend itself to money. Perhaps there is another prize more reflective of artistic integrity. Maybe the prize should just be the title itself.
Regardless, when the arts are supported, it’s a good thing for society. But how, why and who we reward it are also important factors to consider in order to truly understand how our society perceives art.

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