Awards ceremonies are agonising. You sit there, lumped together with strangers with whom, thankfully, a trench friendship soon develops. There is occasionally a kind of a meal, sometimes an amusingly branded chocolate that provides whole seconds of fun, but more often than not no food at all and an endless supply of alcohol. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the whole business didn’t drag on for hours and hours and hours. You soon tire of spotting notables — “is that or isn’t that his missus from Midsomer Murders?” — across the room.
The self-aggrandising, faux-naïf speeches drag. The host starts to make cracks of the “chin up, we’re almost halfway through” variety. Throughout this process there’s always the outside chance that you might have won something. And then you lose, and a dash of sour grapes is added to the cocktail of physical fatigue, existential ennui, and mild drunkenness.
Why was I there? Why did people tune in? What is the function of prizes? These ceremonies are one of those cultural rituals that we just accept, and everybody goes along with. They’ve always been there and they always will be there, so nobody pays them much conceptual thinking, like herpes or Ken Barlow. But, recently, they’ve turned from an obvious lot of industry puff and guff that didn’t do much harm in the universal schema, into supposedly significant grandstands of the culture war battles, adding an exciting new stratum of nonsense.
These prizes are often old, sometimes very, very old. The first Oscars ceremony took place in 1929, the first BAFTA was handed out in 1949, the first Booker in 1969. The Brit Awards came along in 1977. Most are decided by mysterious secluded juries of the great and the good, though anyone with a BAFTA membership gets to vote in the first round of nominations, which goes some way to explaining why they are often frowned upon, what with their faint whiff of democracy.
Awards voted by the public are disparaged and discouraged, because they show up the gap between what people actually like and want, and what they should like or want. Public votes such as the National Television Awards are about the mass market; stasis, habit, continuity — witness the endless wins for Ant & Dec. The twitter snob reaction to Mrs Brown’s Boys winning Best Comedy at the NTAs was very telling. Art as a thing that tickles or soothes you rather than makes a great statement is regarded as hopelessly improper.
The most obvious purpose of awards is to show the reverse of public opinion, to act as a showy, physical embodiment of the even longer established magazine round-ups or newspaper critics’ lists. A prize is not just the object or the prize money itself. It can keep a cultural product alive, give it a second lift. It enhances the career prospects of the winner. These are all reasonable enough things.
But add grievance, moral purity and racialised thinking as criteria into the mix of ego and whoomf — the balloon goes up. The steady, slow seepage into the arts of HR nonsense and polytechnic critical theory has led to awards becoming flash points of accusation and reaction. They’re #sowhite, or #somale, and everyone gets to pull their ‘terribly concerned’ face or their ‘oh don’t be ridiculous’ face, depending on where they stand. We now have the somewhat silly spectacle of the Booker Prize being given to two people, not because of the quality of the work but because the writers look different.
The licensed fool is an anthropological figure used to puncture pretensions and diffuse tensions in human societies down the centuries. Combine this with the more specific (and slightly baffling to us) American tradition of the ‘roast’, and step forward Ricky Gervais. These interventions allow some steam to blow off, yes — but nothing actually changes. The whole pompous, pious circus rolls on.
This is how the Hollywood of awards season can apparently be both a shining city on a hill dispensing moral lessons and a cesspit of degradation, when in fact it’s just another workplace where law should be applied and crime punished.
The key thing about the licensed fool is that he is licensed. Gervais has (ironically) the privilege of being able, literally, to afford to tell Hollywood to its face that it’s a hypocritical freak show. Anybody working in the arts without that licence cannot risk questioning the smothering zeitgeist, or even to laugh at or question the nuances of sweaty-palm issues like #metoo, or the indisputable moral worth of ‘diversity and inclusion’ drives, no matter how murky their unintended consequences.
No lasting awareness of the ridiculousness is engendered. The licensed criticism just glances off. Just a few weeks later, Prince William — of all people! — was able to pontificate about diversity at the BAFTAs without turning a hair, without even a particle of self-awareness. This got rather lost in the media scrum around certain other global events, but I think it was a really significant moment. It was proof that the ideology of grievance and gesture is now so firmly baked into the establishment that a prince, heir to the throne, can opine on it, as if it was as uncontroversial and uncomplicated a thing as his great-grandmother saying “yes, the weather has been very bad today, have you come far?”.
Pre-regnal finger wagging leads us back to the existential question. What is the function of art? Why does it have to be something more than itself? Art is without morals — it is not a good or a bad thing in itself. Yes, it can bring people together but sometimes it can make them come together in a really bad cause. It can open up debate. It can also close it down.
Joaquin Phoenix’s nauseating ramble at last night’s Oscars put the tin hat on it all, providing us with the definitive mission statement (and it is a mission, in the Onward, Christian Soldiers sense of the word). The deluded bubble politics, the patronising and quasi-religious tone. The function of making movies is, apparently, to “give voice to the voiceless” and to “guide each other to redemption”. Translated, this means giving voice to people who agree with ‘us’, and no, not cancelling those who disagree (such godlike mercy!) but instead steering them off the primrose path for their self-evident sin in disagreeing with ‘us’. The transformation of Oscars stage to pulpit is complete.
The great irony is that by becoming so hung up on niche political concerns, by trying to be good people, the cultural sphere is becoming more sequestered and remote. And we see that very starkly on the nights the prizes are handed out.