Voting on the Beauty of Art

It’s that time of year when…what? Oh, Christmas? Well, yeah, but that’s not what I was thinking of.  Rather, my Twitter feed has been dominated by several things this week, including yesterday’s date (because it was 12/12/12, which is somehow rarer than other dates), the Screen Actors Guild nominations, the People’s Choice Awards (the voting for which ended last night), and, this morning, the Golden Globes.

As an observer of the human race, I mostly find reactions to the awards to be more interesting than the actual awards, which means that some astute person will probably figure out that the shows/films/actors/writers I care about seldom get nominated, let alone win, and therefore my opinions can safely be labeled as SOUR GRAPES and ignored.

Because that’s how it seems to work: if your favorite fill-in-the-blank wins, it’s because it’s a sterling example of the highest quality whatever-it-is; if it’s not acknowledged, you’re just a sore loser trying to find a way to discredit the winner.

I’m not interested in discrediting anyone or anything, because I get that what’s beautiful to me isn’t to everyone else.

But I don’t think it hurts to look at exactly what the awards mean.

There’s no objective standard for art. We know this. (And even if we didn’t, a walk through any major art museum would remind us.) And yet, we persist in thinking that the various awards that get passed out mean something specific about the quality of the works being acknowledged.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of entertainment awards: those voted on by professionals, either in the same field (actors vote for other actors, directors vote for other directors, etc.) or critics, and those voted on by the rest of us (i.e., the Peoples’ Choice awards, the endless stream of ‘contests’ held by the entertainment sites, etc.)

In theory, both have validity, right? Directors, who know their craft the best, watch all the films, evaluate them solely on quality of the directing and vote accordingly.  And the Peoples’ Choice awards acknowledge the acts, films, shows (and, uh, even the fandoms) that have most touched the ordinary audience member.

But are either of those necessarily true? I doubt it, in part because the creative types in Hollywood are human beings just like the rest of us. I don’t have time to watch every TV show that airs/every film that comes out – why would they?

So I’m going to assume they largely watch for the same reasons we do – because it’s a genre that interests them, or they like the actors/director, or because they’re home sick and happen to catch an episode of something they normally wouldn’t watch.  Oh, and word of mouth.

Word of mouth is great, because it can draw attention to things we might otherwise miss. I regularly watch stuff I wouldn’t ordinarily watch because a friend I respect recommended it. But it can also distort reality somewhat. (Doubt that? Look no further than Shades of Grey. There are some objective standards for written fiction, including that there should be actual conflict, a point to characters who are introduced, a purpose to scenes…none of which the Fifty Shades novels appear to even aim for. And yet, such is the power of word of mouth that I’ve had no less than four conversations in the past few months with different women who told me they were wildly excited to read the books, not one of whom, when asked, had the faintest idea what they were about.)

It seems reasonable to me, in other words, to assume that voters aren’t seeing everything they could nominate/vote for, and are sometimes voting because everyone they know “loves that show [or film] and I’m going to watch it as soon as I have time.”

And then, also like the rest of us mere mortals, they don’t like everything, don’t watch things they don’t like, and don’t vote for them. That’s completely valid, and I’m not saying otherwise. But it means that a show which wins, which may well be a very good show, may, in fact, be an awesome show…may not actually be ‘better’ than some other show that didn’t win.

Other things do come into play, such as that a show like Bones can’t win because there’s no category for it – it’s too much a comedy to win the drama award, too much a drama to win the comedy award. (Ditto other similar genre-bending shows, and probably films, too, though Hollywood’s loosened up a bit in that the Academy Award for best film does not always go to straight drama.)

Similarly, the bias against scifi and fantasy may be loosening, but John Noble’s repeated snubs for his performance as Walter in Fringe still means something, though I don’t know what.  (One possibility, given the trend toward cable shows being nominated over broadcast shows, is that being in a cable show automatically grants you superpowers as an actor. No? A good actor is a good actor whether he’s on a show on ABC or HBO? My bad. We must be back to things being in play other than ‘the best always wins,’ huh?)

So what about the People’s Choice Awards? They must mean something, right? A win there demonstrates quality as determined by a majority of regular people?

Nope. The voting for the PCA allows multiple voting – I could spend all day voting if I wanted to.  So instead of saying something significant about the winners, all it says is that the they have more fans who have an apparently unlimited amount of time to sit and vote than those who don’t win.  (I saw a tweet to the effect that one fan was aiming to vote 5000 times for her favorite show. Maybe you can argue that behavior proves her dedication, which in turn says something about the quality of the show, but…nope. I’m going with it indicates something more about the fans than the show.)

I’m not saying awards have no value, or that I don’t enjoy it when something I love is acknowledged by others as well, be it Hollywood professionals or just ordinary people.  But  I do think that to accept that a nomination or award automatically means that a show or film is ‘better’ – by whatever standard – than a show or film which didn’t win is assuming a lot of things that aren’t necessarily true.

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