The idea of good and bad art has stirred controversy since art has been enjoyed by the public. While everyone has their own taste, the search for affirmation of what is good art has given rise to a few mechanisms of judgment. One is professional criticism, where someone who is trusted for some reason that’s hard to pin down, whether education or experience or money, explains their opinion on a piece of art. Another is the award show, a strange amalgamation of sales, public input, professional criticism, and live performance. Once a year, they paralyze movie-goers, TV bingers and music listeners with three hours of letter opening and disappointment that always ends up being closer to four hours.
In the sea of the many independent, genre-specific, gendered and racially distinguished Award Shows trying to convince us that they have found what products of the year are worth our time, two consistently draw the largest audience and the most gossip arousing controversy. These are the Academy Awards or the Oscars for film and the Grammy Awards for music.
Each Grammy category has five nominees and it’s very unusual to see an artist, album or song that didn’t go platinum or make it onto the radio, which is still hailed in a way that conjures an image of the voters as baby-boomer conservatives cruising the country with nothing but an antenna to pick up local pop stations. The Grammy Awards have been criticized by fans, writers, nominated artists and snubbed artists as being a commercial machine more concerned with glorifying sales than rewarding creativity in music. In the last show they made a bid for the unpredictable by giving This is America Record of the Year, and dumping nearly all the remaining gold baubles on Kacey Musgraves. To make up for the fact that four of their biggest awards — album of the year, song of the year, record of the year, and best new artist — go almost invariably to the standard pop sensation, they have divided other categories by genre. This allows them to recognize that genres like rap exist without having to give any of the coveted awards to them.
The handy creation of the Urban Contemporary category allows them to lump the artists of color who they have trouble defining into one fabricated box to fight it out in relative obscurity. The Grammy voters are sworn to judge based only on musical content and not on sales or general reception.
Of course, they cast their votes with more than a little preference towards the hits, and find objective goodness in a perfect combination of marketability and widespread appeal. In a way, it is the people’s vote, but it is also without fail the industry’s safe choice.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, or Oscars, makes a show to live up to their vague and lofty name in picking not the choice of the masses, but a sophisticated art piece. If the Grammys followed Oscar rules, Best Album would go to people like Tyler, the Creator and Father John Misty. If the Oscars played to the same crowd as the Grammys, Tom Cruise would consistently win Best Actor (occasionally beaten by Nicholas Cage) and the Marvel universe would own Best Picture of the year every year for the last decade.
The Oscars are awash with integrity, dripping with veteran spokespeople and categories like best sound mixing, and even picking movies like The Artist and The King’s Speech, movies with so little dialogue, or so much dialogue about speaking that most people won’t see them no matter how many awards they win.
Despite being more based on taste than popularity, the Oscar nominations still manage to be predictable. Perhaps this is only because quality movies are harder to make than music with modern technology, so there is a smaller field to draw from. But maybe even our Oscar voters are not the great tastemakers we thought.