And the winner is -- us?

February 22, 2000|By David S. Thompson

I'M CERTAIN that by now you have noticed the return of an obsession that grips our country each year. Yes, it's award season. The beginning of each year brings with it a nearly compulsive desire to sit in front of a television and watch celebrities deliver rambling examples of public address while holding gold-plated figurines.

The sheer number of awards organizations and broadcasts provides evidence of their popularity (at least among television networks and audiences). What is behind this surge in popularity? Why are there so many awards? Why do we love them so?

First, let's clarify history. Awards are nothing new. The Greeks gave awards for the best play at theatrical competitions during the 6th century B.C. During the 19th century, American actor Edwin Forrest offered prize money for promising new plays as a way to develop vehicles for himself. In between, various heads of state bestowed honors upon artists in a variety of fields. With few exceptions, awards remained localized affairs promoted by civic or fraternal organizations as more recognition than competition.

Going global

The 20th century saw the globalization of awards with the institution of the Nobel Prize. America began its own love affair with competitive honors in 1917 when the first Pulitzer Prizes were presented.

Over the years, prizes for performing arts, in particular, proliferated and proved popular with the public. (Although many historians remind us that the first Oscar and Tony ceremonies, like those for other organizations, were low-keyed dinners featuring very few categories and little publicity.)

Why, then, do we love these awards?

First, we love the thrill associated with recognizing accomplishment. It begins from our earliest school days. Good grades, gold stars, medals, ribbons and certificates of merit are all canonized as outward symbols of personal worth. Furthermore, our mentors teach us to value not just our own successes, but the achievements of others as part of developing good sportsmanship or good citizenship. Thus, any honor is good, whether ours or someone else's. It's something for all to appreciate.

Similarly, when we watch the awarding of Gwyneth Paltrow's Oscar, it's partly ours. We revel in the moment of Michael J. Fox's Golden Globe win. We nod in respectful agreement as Brian Dennehy accepts his Tony. In short, we achieve glory by association.

We are part of the picture. So it is also for ourselves when we cheer for Santana's Grammy.

We must also recognize that glamour plays an enormous role in our love affair with awards. For most of us, theater, film, television and music function as our major sources of amusement and entertainment. They are diversions and distractions that transport us from our daily routine to realms of fantasy.

The very notion of such activities, not to mention such careers, strikes many of us as the most glamorous pursuits imaginable.

Awards presentations not only honor the greatest achievements in each of these endeavors, but they also celebrate the glamour and excitement that surround our favorite stars and their creations.

Additionally, following the various awards helps us to validate our own opinions. When our favorite movies, actors or television shows receive nomination, we know that experts have considered them among the best in the field. We know that our tastes are likewise worthy of praise. However, even if our favorites do not win, we can still count ourselves among the experts.

Taste unquestioned

Unlike sports or politics, which seem to require a life commitment to qualify for status as an authority, our taste in art cannot be questioned. Gauging one's own enjoyment requires no training and no research. Particularly for those who equate art with entertainment, "I know what I like" carries near-universal power.

Finally, when we care about awards, it shows that we care about the direction of the culture and the direction of society. Granted, the concept is self-reflexive, but when many others share our interest, it makes it more important; we think ourselves more important because others think as we do.

Our opinions carry weight and become part of national or global trends that shape the future. We become a piece of history and, in so doing, connect to those other historical moments dating to the ancient Greeks. At the end of it all, perhaps we love awards because they connect us to the rest of the nation and the rest of the world. Not bad for a guilty pleasure.

David S. Thompson, an associate professor of theater at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., wrote this article for Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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