Academics, scholars, artists, nerdy bookworms and English majors alike all anxiously awaited the results of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, only to discover on Oct. 13 that the prize would be awarded to none other than Bob Dylan. The decision was polarizing; the reaction was split. Some celebrated the expansion of the traditional category of literature tot now include songwriting; some thought the results surprising but not unfounded given that Bob Dylan has often been regarded as more than “just” a songwriter, but as a poet. Singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen saw the designation as redundant and unnecessary, likening it to awarding Mount Everest with a medal for tallest mountain; while novelist Rabih Alameddine expressed on Twitter how he saw the recognition as ridiculous, bringing up the time when Winston Churchill was also awarded a Novel Prize in Literature.
Others similarly were astonished, upset – even angry. My professor, who specializes in French literature, walked into class the morning of Oct. 13 and asked us exasperatedly how she was expected to justify studying the grand traditions of literature to her students if the very Nobel committee revealed its preference of popular songs. Never underestimate the fury of a bookworm – we are after all armed with weapons at our disposal: our big, heavy, prestigious books.
Then, of course, there was the response from Dylan to the award – or more accurately, the lack of response. Never known for embracing the spotlight, Dylan repeatedly ignored attempts by the Nobel committee to respond. He held a concert the night of Oct. 13, without any mention of the award he had been bestowed with that very day. This only riled up the furies of the literary community of whom many already saw Dylan as undeserving, as one Nobel committee member reportedly stated that Dylan’s lack of response was “impolite and arrogant.”
Why is the literary community so up in arms about this decision? Why is Dylan unacceptable as a recipient of this award? Is this just a bunch of sensitive nerds clinging to their T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett and claiming that Dylan has no right to be in this category?
The debates around Dylan’s worthiness to be bestowed with the Nobel Prize for Literature are for the most part completely pointless. To sit and argue if Dylan deserved this award only leads one to opposing and subjective opinions, which point to a deeper issue at the bottom of this Nobel prize controversy.
The recent Nobel prize controversy brings to light a deep-seeded tension between artists and their respective judgment committees. “Judgement committees” sounds like some sort of circle of Dante’s inferno, but I’m simply referring to the various committees, like the Nobel committee, the Academy, the Hollywood Foreign Press Associations, whose purpose is to set standards in the art world and to tell the masses of peasants what they should and not like.
Essentially, it all boils down to: who, if anyone, has a right to judge art, and how seriously are we to take these judgments? Can art be rightfully judged?
This isn’t to say that critics, such as literary and film critics, produce widely unnecessary content. In fact, they arguably make art – all forms of it, from the high-brow, Ivy-educated writer to the reality show produced by Bravo – better, showing how art is not a passive display, but an invitation for further creation and engagement. In the words of Oscar Wilde, the criticism itself is an art, as it is independent and creative.
Thus, the issue is not with critics, but with the teams of critics, the committees who solidify their judgment into accolades.
Last year, the Internet was filled with memes and GIFs about the Academy robbing Leonardo Dicaprio of the Oscar for Best Actor year after year. Every award season brings its slew of articles about “Oscar snubs.” Each year, recipients of these awards are predicated, and a times, when predications are proven wrong, and suddenly backlash erupts.
When contemporary poet Rapi Kaur whose writing went viral thanks to her tumblr and Instagram platforms, she decided to self-publish her poetry. The literary world watched in horror – they have long decided that self-publishing is the kiss of the death to regarding a writer for any literary merit.
In an interview back in November of 2014 conducted by Bryony Gordon of The Telegraph, New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult revealed some of her grievances with the literary world. She indignantly claimed that her writing had been widely ignored by critics for a variety of reasons, but one of them being chiefly because she was a best-selling author. The other so-called kiss of death for “serious” writers? To be commercially successful.
So what is an artist to do when given a book of double of standards? Chuck it out the door.
In the face of shiny awards and prizes, certificates of honor and judging committees, artists should carry on civilly, coolly and largely unaffected. The recognition by one’s peers in a field is certainly a cause for celebration – but these flatteries should be taken with a grain of salt. That’s right – Dicaprio, I hope you didn’t spend any tears on all those Oscar snubs because quite frankly, who gives a damn.
Who does art belong to? Two people: the artist and the viewer, the reader, the art-appreciator. When reading, watching a film, listening to a song or viewing a painting, the process of engaging with the art begins and ends with the viewer. It is an active process, shaped by the perspective and experiences the viewer brings to the plate and the emotions and ideas that the artwork incites. Nothing can be a more intimate experience than that – and who in the hell is to determine whether one such experience is more valuable than the other?
So, fellow artists and art-appreciators carry on with your Tolstoy and Stephenie Meyer, your Bob Dylan and Jay-Z, your Robert Frost and Tyler Knott Gregson, and don’t you dare apologize.