The Best Reward is No Award
A Speech to Be Used on the Occasion of Winning an Award for the Arts

...and the winner is YOUR NAME HERE.

Thank you.

I can't believe I won this award.

MGM's Louis B. Mayer once said, the best way to "handle creative types" was to "hang medals all over them." According to LB, if he gave artists "cups and awards" they’d do anything to please him. I hope not.

When people are creative, we call them artistic. But, though many have tried, no one can define art. And I think that’s the point.

There are beautiful things people do that defy description. Nevertheless, being human, we try to describe these beautiful things from our partisan points of view. That's a big mistake. Art is beyond description, and lives outside limits.

When there is no "limit," there is no "best." A "best" is something defined by a limit. Today, the "best" sprinter in the world is Usain Bolt. His limit is the finish line. He sprints there first. Give him an award.

In art there is no finish line. So why do we keep handing out awards for the arts? One answer is: we are in love with our opinions.

This afternoon, I wanted some good Kung Pao Chicken, so I Googled "Best Chinese Take-out." "Best" works with Chinese food, because people generally know what Chinese food is. According to Google, 48 million of them had Kung Pao opinions.

Nearly everyone has an opinion about art, too. But art, remember, is limitless. It is the unknown known — the thing we don't know we know. It defies consensus. Granted, I'm sure some artist could turn Chinese food into art, but just not the other way around.

Since art isn't Chinese food, or any other definable thing, giving an award for "Best Artist" isn’t so much a recognition of excellence as it is nonsense. In that case, thank you very much for this award of nonsensical consensus. I'm number one. I get the joke. In fact, I laugh every time I hear the words "Awards Season." That's when "cups and awards" are handed out to "creative types" in a series of burlesques for the benefit of their agents, producers, and marketers. The winner — number one — is simply the poster boy for an insanely profitable popularity contest.

Meanwhile, the indefinable nature of art is overlooked at the Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, and so on. These "Awards Season" ceremonies —these backslapping top-ten list advertisements — broadcast the message that the highest achievement in art is to be recognized as "the best." That's twaddle.

The actual reward in art — the thing that makes it worthwhile — comes in the pleasure of creating and the joy of discovery, not in a mind-numbing, soul-sucking race to a trophy case. Sitting here tonight, dressed in glitzy gowns and monkey suits, we are numbers... or, if you're Louis B. Mayer... clowns and whores.

Whoever you are, when you're fortunate enough to have artistic talent, let your work unfold without limits. This indescribable thing we call art is too important for trophies.

Once again, thank you. But, no thank you. Words seem so futile, so feeble. You are wonderful, sweet people. But in art, the best reward is no award.

And by the way, the Kung Pao sucked.

— Nathan Callahan

First Broadcast February 6, 2015

© / Nathan Callahan / all rights reserved


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