Thursday, October 12, 2006

Nobel Prize for...politics?


Or: why Ryszard Kapuściński didn’t win it this year.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is seen as a ‘big deal’ by most. And it is true that when you look back at some of the winners over the years there are some very impressive authors on the list.

But there are also gaping holes where obvious geniuses like Tolstoy or Joyce, should be.

Does whoever awards these things take into account more than just artistic criteria? Of course they do. This is not a literary prize at all, it merely reflects the contemporary obsessions of the West – and particularly Sweden.

For instance, Czeslaw Milosz won his Nobel prize in 1980. Now what was going on in 1980? Oh yeah, Solidarity became the first independent trade union in the communist bloc.

That was back in the days of the Cold War. Today, the West thinks it has other things to worry about.

So it’s no surprise that Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature. The judges said that they had given it to him as his ‘quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.’

Ryszard Kapuściński, the third favourite this year and an obvious choice as he is one of the greatest journalists of his generation, never stood a chance. If he really wants to win it then perhaps he should become a Muslim and start writing about why he wants a sex change operation (with recycled scalpels and forceps).

Poland has won the prize lots of times - some of them in political circumstances. The 1905 prize went to Henryk Sienkiewicz - the year of another failed uprising. Wladyslaw Reymont won it in 1924 (in the years following the First World War the committee were giving awards to ‘non-combatant countries’ - in a bid to appear neutral. As Poland didn’t exist at the time of WW I it certainly counts as being a non-combatant). The Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer won it in 1974, and Wislawa Szymborska (who? – don’t worry, she’s a poet) won it in 1996.

More?
What's So Funny About the Nobel Prize for Literature?, LA Times, Oct 1

38 comments:

steppx said...

well, I loved seeing Pinter win....not for his politics...which I share...but because I think him the world's greatest playwright.

I dont know today's winner ..... to be honest.

I love Kapuściński -- the soccor war collection is a masterpiece....as is the book on the fall of the Shah. But such awards are always a bit of everything.....and art isnt meant to be a contest.....so in the end its pretty silly.

beatroot said...

I like Pinter too. Because I like Beckett. But he is much better when he is writing plays. When he writes things that are political he gets a bit…sloganizing. It’s this type of thing:

Where was the dead body found? Who found the dead body? Was the dead body dead when found? How was the dead body found? Who was the dead body? Who was the father or daughter or brother Or uncle or sister or mother or son Of the dead and abandoned body? Was the body dead when abandoned? Was the body abandoned?.....…and so on and on

Hmmmm

Anonymous said...

Well, seems like all award decisions nowadays are political. Look at the Nobel Peace Prize. In the last few years there's been several anti-Bush winners, led by Jimmy Carter in 2002 and followed last year by International Atomic Energy Agency and Mohamed ElBaradei. And how about Cannes? Did you really think that Fahrenheit 9/11 was the best movie of 2004?

Whether you agree or disagree with the political points of views of these juries, shouldn't we expect a choice based solely on merits? Nah, didn't think so.

steppx said...

if you dont base these choices on politics....then what do you base them on? Let me explain.....aesthetics is always partly historical and partly political --- in the broad sense of the term. You arent going to be able to evaluate a writer's work (or a filmaker or a painter etc) without examining what he or she is reacting to. So when Chris says base the choice on "merits" its really begging the question. What are merits? They are aesthetic reactions to specific conditions. Fassbinder would have made different films if he lived in a world of perfect harmony where homosexuals were accepted. But a Bresson raises different questions.....because its much harder to decide what his reaction is and because he is NOT at all political in the sense we are talking about. Still....... Pinter's plays deal with alienation.....a modern condition....which Beckett is the master of exploring.....and Francis Bacon paints about the same...in some sense. Is Bacon political? Walter Benjamin said Beckett was more revolutionary than Brecht....more political. A comment that is much discussed.....but even if you disagree it takes us back to how to evaluate artists. They are always political.....and always a specific response to a material condition of some sort....a historical condition. Pinter's exploration of alienated human relations is decidedly political. So i dont think its actually so wrong to make choices using political criteria. Perhaps the problem is the superficial nature of the political....or the timing. Why wasnt Pinter chosen ten years ago? Well, maybe because he's sick now...and a writer has to be living to win....OR (!!!) because everyone wanted to state an anti US position given the current Bush-era Imperialist debacles. Its not ideal to do this.....I agree....but I think politics is part of all art.

beatroot said...

What it all shows is that art, these days, cannot be judged simply in terms of being art – Art for art's sake – it has to be judged by some other criteria. In the 1980s art became a commodity – it's value was its price – these days it is judged by its ‘social use’…but art should judged by whether its good art, or isn’t. Period.

Anonymous said...

Stupid post. It makes me wonder whether you actually read anything by Pamuk. I can't think of anyone else, except perhaps Ian McEwan, who'd be deserve the Nobel for LITERATURE this much. Comparing Kapuscinski to him is a joke; or another case of Polish complexes - which surprised me in beatroot.

Redwine said...

"but art should judged by whether its good art, or isn’t." - Dario Fo was the least artististic and political choice, and the only one almost nobody understood - after all, not making it a political choice is as political as the a political choice.. While it is a political choice (maybe only a writer from Andorra wouldn't be or Iceland maybe) this one seems pretty much deserved. And that was the case with many, including Pinter. With or without the Nobel, Pamuk is a great writer - and the situation and Eu accession of Turkey matter very little when it comes to his art.

beatroot said...
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beatroot said...

have never read anything by Pamuk. But that is not the point I am making. What I am arguing here is that art is no more judged by artistic criteria. In fact, I would argue that the Nobel Prize has NEVER been judged simply on artistic criteria. Art is being used as 'social engineering'...as a way for the Nobel comm. to 'pose' on the 'issue' of the day. Redwine mentions Dario Fo...and while his play 'Accidental death of an acarchist' was good (the production I saw was anyway) he cannot be considered in the top division of writers.

I think Kapuscinski has a body of work - over a lifetime - and Pamuk is still quite young, and will no doubt go on to write many more things. The Nobel Prize should be given to writers who have a lifetime of work behind them and not to some 'favour of the hour' as this years has done.

As for the bit about me being 'Pro Polish or whatever - this blog is not to be pro or anti POlish. It's about how I see things...period.

Anonymous said...

"have never read anything by Pamuk"
Exactly. How can you then judge whether the award was artistically merited?

"Kapuscinski has a body of work - over a lifetime"
So does Danielle Steel. Seriously, Kapuscinski is an entertaining writer, but by no means great. As for his journalism, enough questions have been raised about its veracity (see e.g. http://www.richardwebster.net/johnryle.html) to cast doubt on your statement that he is "one of the greatest journalists of his generation".

Anonymous said...

One more thing:
"The Nobel Prize should be given to writers who have a lifetime of work behind them and not to some 'favour of the hour' as this years has done."
This is both ignorant and arrogant. Someone who has not read anything by the author feels fit to judge that the winner is simply "favour of the hour". It is not so very different from Kaczynski's pronouncements on Germany...
In addition you seem to imply that many above average novels would be more deserving than a single work of genius. I'm afraid the Swedish Academy disaggrees, and at least in theory, the prize is given for "lasting literary merit".

beatroot said...

"Kapuscinski has a body of work - over a lifetime"
So does Danielle Steel. Seriously,


No, you are not being serious, you are being silly.

Ask any decent journalist, anywhere in the world, and they will know Kapuscinski. He is simply one of the most respected reportage writers in the world. He is defiantly THE most admired living Polish writer. And his books are absolutely fantastic. Maybe you should read a few reviews of his work.

This is both ignorant and arrogant.

Well…I’m not sure about the ignorant bit…

Still, I think what you are arguing is that Pamuk was awarded his prize for artistic merit alone. And that you are arguing that the Nobel Prizes are awarded every year for on objective criteria nothing to do with their political viewpoint.

I wonder which that is: ignorant, or arrogant?

beatroot said...

And another thing…[froths at the mouth and falls over backwards}…

The central argument of the post is that these awards have always reflected the West’s current obsessions. It was the Cold War, it was the chaos of WW I Europe…Today it can be summed up by saying:

If he really wants to win it then perhaps he should become a Muslim and start writing about why he wants a sex change operation (with recycled scalpels and forceps).

The recycling because ‘climate change’ and the environment have become the new religion; the obsession about sexuality – from homphobes with some kind of revulsion/attraction type complex, to liberal politicians trying to look good and ‘connect’ with the people and ‘feel our pain’ by being shown to be ‘caring’ about gays etc (not a very controversial or brave thing to do, these days); and Islam (and in Europe, Turkey) – which freaks out the West like nothing else.

So Nobel Prize is more about the way we think, than some writer’s work…

Michael Farris said...

I'm not sure that's a bad thing when (IINM) the criteria for the prize makes it clear that they're looking for writers with a specific kind of message, something about making the world a better place.

I think the obvious lies that they're not taking politics into account is far worse than simply taking politics into account (which everybody does in judging art).

And other considerations apparently are taken into account as well, IIRC the Chinese guy that won a few years ago was heavily lobbied for by a committe member with a financial interest in the writer. Supposedly Szymborska won partly because she had an unusually good Swedish translator... and her award was just 10 years ago, it's probably too soon to honor another writer in the same 'minor' language.

steppx said...

beat.....
you seem to have missed the point here. How can you judge art by standards that dont include the political? Art for art 's sake has never really existed. Art is historical, political, emotional, intellectual, etc etc etc. The very language we speak has political overtones.....it cant be escaped. The point is that often the judging of *art* seems to become a media message or sheer propaganda. But to imagine you can evaluate art in some vacuum is simply incorrect.

So this notion of good art and bad art is a pointless discussion.....I mean its subjective. I love Kapuscinski, think he's a *great* writer. I dont know this year's winner.....but its all what matters to the individual. HAving said that....there are some objective realities....danielle steele is pulp junk.....nobody would really argue that (except maybe a graduate student in post modern studies at Yale) and Pinter, Pamuk, and most of the other winners are pretty well established figures. Does the committee make mistakes? Sure.....The Good Earth...Pearl Buck, is garbage...and I dont much take seriously Toni Morrison....but then some people do.

But you cant make judgements about culture without things getting political. Its not possible. Its a great and terminal illusion to think art exists outside historical and cultural life.

beatroot said...
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beatroot said...

And I think, Step, that you are getting things ‘arse about tit’ as it were. Just because art is made up of social, cultural, historical, political influences – of course it is – does not mean that we have to judge it by political criteria. In fact, art should be judged against other works of art, and not whether the messages within that art fit in with the agenda of the day.

As Mike points out, the judges are looking for works with a specific kind of message, something about making the world a better place. Well, OK. But let’s not pretend that the Nobel Prize is some kind of marker of Great Writing, because it’s not. It’s about which works the judges consider ‘make the world a better place’…whatever that means.

steppx said...

I think in my first comment I said the whole idea of literary competition is silly. Agreed.

Maybe they are using a criteria that focuses on something like "making the world a better place"...whatever that means..yeah. Maybe. I never ever said the nobel prize meant anything. I dont think such awards have great value and in fact sort of think they get in the way of the organic evolution of culture.

But my point is that art isnt to be judged by political criteria (never said that!)...but that you cannot seperate a work of art from the historical and political moment in which it exists....and that ALL art has a political component. Suggest major works of art that are void of a political content or message.....go ahead.

beatroot said...

Er...dunno. Abstract art? Like that Dutch bloke who did those coloured squares?

steppx said...

Mondrian?
Well, i suspect i could give you a political take on absract art....as a reaction to (if we're speaking of abstract expressionism) the pictoralism of guys like Rivera. But even Duchamp has to be seen in the light of the *politics* of art merchandising. The CIA actually supported Clement Greenberg and other critics in their love affair with Pollack and DeKooning (both of whom I like). It was a way to get away from Soviet realism.....(ok, the CIA are deluded...yes).

I guess we're speaking at cross purposes though. Abstract art -- in IMHO -- was a reaction, and as such has to have a political dimension -- thats what I mean by this being something that cannot be escaped.
It doesnt mean awards arent about an agenda....they are. And the Nobel Prize is no different...but I will end with the simple fact that art...cultural expression of any kind....cannot be totally seperated from the political (which isnt about electoral politics...but about politics in the big sense).

Dziennikarz said...

Well, I'm a decent journalist, and I know Kapuscinski. His texts are quite good and sometimes wonderful to read. But Kapuscinski is a only a good writer, not a world class author. And he is certainly not a good journalist. How can you call a journalist someone who invents situations and quotes? Someone who openly says he never used a tape recorder and hardly wrote down any notes? If Kapuscinski is a great journalist, then Lech Kaczynski is a great president.

beatroot said...

Pan Dziennikarz - I am sure you are a very decent journo - but I don't think we can deny someone a hummy prize just because they don't use a tape dictaphone!

Step: Duchamp has to be seen in the light of the *politics* of art merchandising.

Well, of course. But Mondrian? He was looking for a pure language of art that was not reliant on representation. Now where is the politics in that?

Vilhelm Konnander said...

In my view, Orhan Pamuk is one of the greatest authors of our time.

That his writings reflect societal and cultural phenomena is only natural. Most good literature reflect upon the contemporary.

That the Swedish Academy - as most of us when we read literature - has this as a frame of reference is really how it should be, or else literature would not matter.

As drama, literature has to become "mis en scène" to gain its audience. This scene is the current thoughts and reflections of readers and audience. So, it is quite natural that the Swedish Academy - as many other people - is attracted to Pamuk, as the things he addresses in his works, hit a chord in our way of perceiving the world as it is today.

And yes, I have read both Kapuscinski and Pamuk, finding the latter superior, despite a soft spot for the former. Got it?

~JS said...

Whatever happened to the idea of the classic: Timeless because it's always timely.

Is this anachronistic? How timely ought a winning piece of literature be before it becomes, ironically, irrelevant to future generations?

Larski said...

What an odd post. When has art ever been judged on purely artistic aesthetic grounds?
Pamuk's work is wonderful and I am delighted he has won. Kapuściński's work is also fantastic, but I think the Nobel Prize is in recognition of Pamuk's recent struggle against cenorship in Turkey and the fact that he faced down the Turkish government and risked jail time over freedom of speech in recent years, paving the way for other Turkish authors to do the same, and widening the debate on Turkish society. To write off Pamuk winning as a sop to the current obession with all things Islam, particularly when you haven't even taken the time to read any of his work, is a bit rich. You can examine his work for its political charge or purely on the basis of the beauty of his writing - on both counts he deserves the prize hands down.

beatroot said...

I have read both Kapuscinski and Pamuk, finding the latter superior, despite a soft spot for the former. Got it?

Got it. And larski - When has art ever been judged on purely artistic aesthetic grounds?

But why shouldn't art be judged by its artistic value? That's my point.

Larski said...

Art is judged by its artistc value but you cant divorce it from reality. otherwise your judging of art will be reduced to "umm i like the color and this must have taking him ages to do" or "i like his imagery and how he uses langauge." It will be purely based on form and not on context or largely content. Try and judge a book without refering to what it reflects or says about society or the reality that it depicts, the environement it was written in or the author's background. Try and judge Kapuscinski's work without referring to politics and the environment he created it in. I don't think you will have much of interest to say. Judging art for purely art's sake is nonsense and divorces art from its meaning and reinforces the ludicrous notion that you need to know lots about art to enjoy it.

beatroot said...

…otherwise your judging of art will be reduced to "umm i like the color and this must have taking him ages to do" or "i like his imagery and how he uses language

But Larski, that is not how decent art critics judge art. There is an ‘internal logic’ to a piece of art. There are also universal truths within great art – that’s why art from different eras and cultures can connect with us today. That’s why we can appreciate Shakespeare over four hundred years after he was writing.

What has happened today is that art is judged by how socially useful it is

And that’s also why some schools are not teaching Shakespeare – because he is thought to be to inaccessible to our poor, dumb helpless youth. Bullshit, of course.

Larski said...

Fair point. However, I think how socially useful art is, is just one facet in looking at art and judging it as worthwhile or not. I also think the internal logic and universal truths are not the only thing commending older works of art.

For instance, at the mo I'm reading the Decameron by Baccacio (I'll just go get a brush and sweep up all the names I'm about to drop, sorry) which is a book that Shakespeare is thought to have borrowed from. As literature its magnificent and with 100 indivudal stories its quite the achievement and usually merits a mention in the same breadth as dante's Inferno, apparently. However, it has a decidely pro-feminist slant not normally found in litearute from this era and it has some really cutting criticism of the Pope and the Catholic Church. Similarly the work of Caravaggio can be appreciated for his technique and also for the way he subtly but severly poked a spear in the sides of the Holy See.

I don't think socially useful art is a new thing and I still can't think of an example of when art was judged purely for artistic reasons.

~JS said...

The definition of a classic work as: Timeless because always timely...doesn't suggest detachment, or indifference to the world...

...but is suggestive of a distinction between period piece and master piece...and the short shelf-life of the former...

~JS said...

...or is it the latter?

beatroot said...

This is a good discussion, this. I’ll be honest and say that I never even heard of Baccacio (the Uk education system leaved a lot to be desired even when I was at school – these days it’s a lot worse). But I am not arguing that art has no social use – of course it does. It has inspired people politically etc. And so it should. I am just saying that good or bad art should not be judged by that criteria.

For instance, take Salvador Dali. George Orwell wrote a brilliant essay about him where he says that Dali as a man was a disgusting fascist pervert….but he was also a ‘brilliant draftsman…’. I agree. If we judged Dali by his politics he would be a crap artist. But he wasn’t, he was a great one. And Orwell can say that because he was judging Dali using artistic criteria, not a political one.

Larski said...

OK, but is this not a case of judging the artist seperately from the art, which is tricky but manageable? I think it's possible in some cases to divorce the artist's political leanings, for example, from his art, and judge them seperately (as your Dali example points out). But it is impossible to judge the art itself based purely on form and content, without including its inherent political or social message, assuming the artist intended one which they almost invariably do. If you restrict yourself to just judging the form and content (art purely for art's sake), as I earlier mentioned you will have little to say and, as an artist, I think you will produce some nicely executed if rather dull work.

In a recent article about buying art, Louisa Buck wrote this, which illustrates the point better than I am:
"The Scottish painter Jack Vettriano, he of the dancing couples and greetings cards, might be Britain's "most popular" artist, but he is largely shunned by the art world. The canvases of Peter Doig, on the other hand, which also feature enigmatic figures in landscapes and command awesome prices, are frantically sought after by collectors and galleries.

What makes Doig more desirable? The fact that he paints to explore what painting can be made to say and do, and because his works have no single easy reading. In my view, Vettriano goes little further than the illustration of a scene and the evocation of a mood. One is intellectually challenging and unsettling, while the other is catchy and commercial."

That Orwell essay is good stuff, but I'm not sure it wins your argument. Orwell does say that Dali was a superb draughtsman, but he also says, right at the end, that when considering DAli's work:

"[one ought not] pretend, in the name of ‘detachment’, that such pictures as ‘Mannequin rotting in a taxicab’ are morally neutral. They are diseased and disgusting, and any investigation ought to start out from that fact."

beatroot said...

"[one ought not] pretend, in the name of ‘detachment’, that such pictures as ‘Mannequin rotting in a taxicab’ are morally neutral. They are diseased and disgusting, and any investigation ought to start out from that fact."

I completly agree. But 'morally diseased' can also make 'good art'.

Surely?

beatroot said...
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Larski said...

Of course morally diseased can also make good art. But in seperating the two i thikn you are not giving a fair judgment or representation of the art.

You are using the orwelll essay, if I understand you correctly, to say that art should be judged for purely the art's saske and not take account of the failings of the artist. But in these last lines Orwell says any investigation of Dali's pieces must start out from the 'fact' that the artist is not 'morally neutral'. It seems to me that Orwell disagrees with you.

beatroot said...

But in these last lines Orwell says any investigation of Dali's pieces must start out from the 'fact' that the artist is not 'morally neutral'. It seems to me that Orwell disagrees with you.

I really don’t think so, Larski. What he was doing is separating politics from art, whilst at the same time reminding everyone that Dali did have nasty politics. But just because he did have nasty politics does not mean he was a bad artist.

But overall, you are probably correct in your criticisms. I was taking this argument ‘for a walk’ to see how far I could take it (I do that quite a lot on this blog). But I still think art for art’s sake should be the GOAL when judging it.

The alternative is either 1980s Thatcherite/Reagan philistines (the market creates value), or the current crop of Tony Blairite/Clinton philistines (value equals ‘social use’) . A plague on all their ignorant houses!

Mr. Baltimore in Exile said...

isaac singer won in 1978, not 1974.

it is interesting that Bellow, an american, won in the bi-centennial year.