In the wake of the recent announcement of the latest round of MacArthur “genius” grants, The Baffler website reprints a 2014 essay by Thomas Frank on the strange and uniquely American cult of prestigious awards. While MacArthur grants famously consist of a no-strings-attached pile of cash, Frank writes these award programs often have the hidden motive of shaping what kinds of cultural work is valorized and produced. An excerpt:
Why would the Foundation itself encourage us to heed the Parable of the Phone Call? In other situations, they are anxious to correct public simplifications of their philanthropic work—when we stupidly call it a “genius grant,” for example, rather than what it really is, a prize for “exceptional creativity.” But this business with the life-changing phone calls—this they approve of. How come?
In his 2005 study of prize-giving, The Economy of Prestige, the English professor James English takes note of the dizzying proliferation of honors and awards in recent decades—it’s “a kind of cultural frenzy,” he writes. “Just indexing all these prizes is a daunting task.” Indeed it is. In the course of researching this article, I discovered numerous distinctions I had never heard of before, including the American Creativity Association’s Special Achievement Award, a right-wing imitation of the Genius Grant called the Bradley Prize (every conservative newspaper columnist will eventually get one), and a literary honor that is named for Rob Bingham, a friend of mine who died tragically in 1999.
What James English tells us about the countless foundations and academies that make these awards is that they are not simply neutral observers, impartially recognizing merit from some lofty height. They are always engaged in a cultural project of their own—usually to establish themselves as authorities and their own concerns as correct ones.