As my research continues, I have been looking at the notion of the art ‘competition.’ More specifically, I have been looking at the barriers that surround these competitions; focusing on the application and selection processes.
In many parts of our lives, we are encouraged to fit into an already existing and established ‘box.’ This box, if you will, has been made by and for people who already exist in privileged positions. As Penny Jane Burke and Jackie McManus note in a 2011 article for Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education:
“Inclusion often works as a disciplinary technology to ‘include those who are excluded into the dominant framework/state of being, rather than challenging existing inequalities within the mainstream system, or encouraging alternative ways of being.”
Although writing about inequalities in the application process for art courses at universities in the UK, many of the points made by Burke and McManus also relate to the application and selection process integral to many art competitions. The steps of any application process are almost seen as necessary – and they tend not to be questioned. To be in for a chance to win, you must apply, and to apply, you must follow the rules. And those who win deserve to win because they have earned it. They have been voted the best of the rest, and that result is the correct result because the system is the system and it works.
Burke and McManus note that “meritocracy is premised on the belief that all individuals who work hard, and have the prerequisite ability, can succeed within a fair and democratic system.” However, they continue by saying that what is not taken into account here is that this idea “does not address differential social positions and power relations, which provide some social groups with greater access to the valuable cultural and material resources necessary to ‘play the game’ and succeed.”
There is so much assumption placed in an application process. Assumption that the applicant will know what is being assessed, assumption about who might apply, and an assumption that the applicant will be able to easily follow the application process. This is especially important to note when many competitions come with a hefty application process and more often than not, a hefty entry fee too. In essence we are asking people to spend a lot of time and money that they may not have on entering something where they really have no way of knowing their possibility of success.
In their 2000 article, Nachoem M. Wijnberg and Gerda Gemser identified three basic types of selection system; “market selection, peer selection, and expert selection.” They explain these types of selection system in the following ways:
“In the case of market selection, the producers are the selected and the consumers are the selectors. In peer selection, on the other hand, the selectors and the selected are part of the same group. In the case of expert selection, the selectors are neither producers nor consumers, but have the power to shape selection by virtue of specialized knowledge and distinctive abilities.”
Traditionally, peer selection was the predominant method of selection – think of the Salons and Academies where artists rose through the ranks and were responsible for selecting newer, emerging artists for exhibition. However, in more recent years, expert selection has become the favoured method. This shift has happened due to several factors, but the most pivotal is perhaps the emergence of dealers who have necessitated the assistance of art critics to bring attention to their chosen art or artists. Eventually, Wijnberg and Gemser note, “the modern art museums would also begin to exhibit works by artists in the same group in order to highlight current trends, thus supporting the efforts of both the ideological dealers and the art critics.”
The issue with all three selection methods is that the “value of most cultural products is generally hard to ascertain, in part because the standards to be used for this purpose are seldom clear and rarely obvious.” Therefore, Wijnberg and Gemser highlight that:
“An innovation attains value only if it is considered valuable by the selectors that control a given selection system. This may lead to serious problems for art that contains innovations that are not valued within an existing selection system. In many instances, therefore, art that is innovative will only be successful if the innovators that champion it succeed in changing the ways in which value is determined. This often means changing the selection system itself.”
The issue here is that existing processes mean that value-based judgements made by selectors can only be subjective, and therefore an artist’s success in a competition format depends heavily on the aesthetic taste of the ‘judging panel.’ So, this is one issue with the art competition format.
Interestingly, in Burke and McManus’ research into the admissions process for UK arts courses, they found that the “’worthy’ student seems to be associated with the ‘unusual’ and the processes of creativity that involve risk-taking and invention (characteristics historically associated with the white, euro-centric forms of masculinity).” We are asking applicants to jump through hoops that have been created by a certain group, and therefore, will innately be more accessible for that same certain group.
Burke and McManus suggest a critical approach for selectors. There needs to be a sense of “critical reflexivity, to interrogate the ways that their decisions might be shaped by exclusive values and perspectives, which profoundly influence how candidates are (or are not) recognized as having talent, ability, and potential.” But I don’t think we just need selectors to be more critical, I think the selectors of the selectors need to be more critical. It is no good simply trying to mould and coach someone to fit our existing expectations. We need to evaluate and change the existing inequitable systems.
I would be really keen to hear from you about your experiences of entering an art competition. How did you find the application process? Was it a good experience? Was it a bad one? Please do feel free to comment below, or drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Penny Jane Burke and Jackie McManus, ‘Art for a few: exclusions and misrecognitions in higher education admissions practices,’ in Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, Vol. 32, No. 5, 2011, pp 699 – 712, p 700
 Op. Cit., p 701-702
 Nachoem M. Wijnberg and Gerda Gemser, ‘Adding Value to Innovation: Impressionism and the Transformation of the Selection System in Visual Arts,’ in Organization Science, Vol. 11, No. 3, 2000, pp 323 – 329, p 323
 Op. Cit., p 324
 Op. Cit., p 327
 Op. Cit., p 323-324
 Op. Cit., p 324
 Burke and McManus, Op. Cit., p 706
 Op. Cit., p 710