When I learned that Ryan Trecartin was one of three finalists for the $150,000 Wolgin art prize - awarded for the first time last month - I should have put down a bet with someone that he would win. His exhibition in May at the Fabric Workshop and Museum indicated he should be the odds-on favorite.
Trecartin is a video artist; in today's art climate, new media often trump old. And although he's only five years out of art school, he already has been included in a Whitney Biennial, in 2006.
Most important, Trecartin has perfect pitch for the aesthetic values that predominate in much contemporary art, as well as in music, films, and television. His work is fast-paced, visually bizarre, and cacophonous to the point of felonious assault.
The fact that it's otherwise indecipherable counts as a virtue among art-prize jurors because it affords them latitude to acclaim it as genius. How many people understood cubism in 1907?
Similarly, I also should have guessed that two other Philadelphians, Billy and Steven Dufala, would win the inaugural West art prize, announced in February, even though they had more competition. (There were 10 West finalists, compared with only three for the Wolgin windfall.)
The Dufalas won because their novelty quotient was off the charts - those who saw the exhibition of West finalists would remember their entry even if they couldn't recall any of the others. The brothers modified a commercial delivery truck to resemble a tank, with cannon and machine guns in front, that serves ice cream - a cheeky inversion of swords into plowshares.
There were at least five other West finalists whose work was sufficiently intriguing to merit the top prize of $25,000, but none could out-dazzle the Dufalas.
The Wolgin prize, endowed by philanthropist Jack Wolgin and administered by Tyler School of Art, and the West prize, sponsored by financial-services mogul Al West, put Philadelphia in the forefront of an unusual proliferation of art prizes this year.
To them add the most startling competition of all, the modestly named but extravagantly funded ArtPrize of $250,000, which abruptly pushed the Wolgin prize off the pinnacle.
Imagine - artists used to think the Pew artist fellowships were a big deal at $50,000 (raised last year to $60,000), but now Grand Rapids, Mich., has bumped Philadelphia's Medicis into economy class.
This sudden efflorescence of art competitions might strike some artists as ironic because fine art has never been held in particularly high regard in this country. These prizes don't change that; on the surface, they seem to be more about marketing, commercialism, and, in Grand Rapids, entertainment and civic boosterism.
The Michigan ArtPrize is different from most other competitions in that the winner - this year a Brooklyn realist painter, Ran Ortner - is chosen by public vote. The sponsor, Amway heir Rick DeVos, might have borrowed the concept from sports all-star balloting or reality television.
Even when the Pew fellowships were the ultimate prize, I often marveled at how assiduous the prize administrators tried to be in ensuring that the competitions were as "objective" and "fair" as mandarins of art could make them. They set up two-stage blind jurying to ensure that neither familiarity nor favoritism could influence the result.
This expectation was naive in the extreme; in any art competition judged by insiders, individual taste, prejudices, favoritism, and familiarity influence the outcome.
A review of the Pew visual-arts awards over the last two decades reveals that while the various juries have made a fair number of meritorious choices, they've also perpetrated some howlers, awards so undeserved that only bias or incompetence can explain them.
However much prize adminstrators strive for inclusiveness and fairness, they can't overcome what is usually a lottery. Only artists who enter have a chance to win. With such astounding amounts of money at stake, this is not only unfair but unacceptable.
(The new Wolgin prize is different in this regard; artists don't put themselves forward but are nominated by what Tyler School of Art, the prize administrator, describes as an "international panel." It's odd, then, that this year's three Wolgin finalists live in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago.)
A more serious systemic flaw is the fact that many artists are excluded from consideration in juried competitions because the kind of art they make isn't favored by either the art market or the art establishment.
The prize system tilts to favor artists like Trecartin and the Dufalas who can offer a frisson of unorthodoxy. (Originally, the purview of the Wolgin prize was announced as being traditional media such as painting, sculpture, photography, and the craft disciplines - no film or video. However, that prescription obviously was stretched to give the competition more sex appeal.)
Finally, giving a quarter-million dollars, or even $150,000, to a single person is inherently ridiculous and risibly unfair to the thousands of talented artists who are equally deserving of recognition and support.
At least the West competition awards a purchase prize of $10,000 to each of its finalists. Supporting artists by buying their art is much healthier for the long-term vitality of art at the grass roots than one or two monster payouts.
For all but a handful of the chosen, the prize ethos is corrupting. Pitting artists against one another as if they were gladiators is inherently insidious. And every year lots of artists waste lots of time applying for prizes they have little or no chance of winning.
More disturbing, the prize ethos subtly promotes naked careerism. A prize certainly dresses up one's resumé, as Trecartin and the Dufalas discovered this year. But embellishing resumés, while creative in its own way, can become a substitute for genuine achievement.
Even promoting careerism would be less odious if the prize-givers could demonstrate that their competitions had produced tangible results. How many "emerging" artists have successfully pupated because of prize money? Where are the prize-winners of yesteryear?
Unfortunately, there isn't a satisfactory way to measure success in this lottery, even if anyone could define the term as it applies to art-making.
Observations of the Pew fellowships over nearly two decades strongly suggest that many winners have basked in their 15 minutes of fame and then slipped back into the chorus.
Ryan Trecartin and the Dufala brothers provide perfect tests of the efficacy of prizes. Look them up in five years, or 10. In the meantime, all prize-givers might consider dispensing with the procedural hocus-pocus and adopting the Grand Rapids paradigm. Either that or run a pure, no-nonsense lottery, or, as a last resort, just throw the money out a window.