The End of the Excellence Standard

3 mins read


Micah Mattix notes today in his Prufrock newsletter that more or less all of the major literary prizes these days are being handed out according to social-justice precepts and the imperatives of identity politics. The prizes become increasingly meaningless as they sever themselves from any interest in rewarding actual excellence. Asks Mattix:

How long will it be before praising a work of art for its aesthetic excellence alone is a revolutionary act? Nearly every literary prize now takes into consideration the race and politics of authors when naming shortlists and winners. When they don’t, they get into trouble. More and more, what matters when it comes to literature today is the “utility” of a work—defined, of course, in a very narrow way—not its excellence, as if the utility of a work of art isn’t found precisely in its excellence.

The organizations that hand out the major awards and prizes across the culture are varied in their degrees of transparency about their newfound determination to signal support for what Antonio Gramsci dubbed “the counter hegemony” rather than to reward magnificent achievements. Mattix points out that the Mellon Foundation announced last week that it is ditching the old excellence standard and henceforth will evaluate how well a potential grantee serves the project of creating “just communities.” Other organizations are trying to have it both ways — “These are the best candidates, honestly! By coincidence, they also advance the cause of social justice.”

In both cases, the awards will matter less and less to the public, which has come to recognize them as virtue signaling and no longer pays much attention to, for instance, the Academy Awards broadcast. I doubt one American in 50 could tell you who won any recent literary award.





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