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A post-ArtPrize assessment: The effects of rewards

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"Svelata" by Mia Tavonatti repeats solutions from 2009 winners: realism, water theme, and many pieces make the image

"Svelata" by Mia Tavonatti repeats solutions from 2009 winners: realism, water theme, and many pieces make the image / David Guthrie

Writer Alfie Kohn examines the use of rewards and presents a fascinating case for how rewards often fail, especially when the desired outcome is human quality. In his book, Punished by Rewards, Kohn outlines five reasons that rewards fail. I tried out these reasons in an analysis of the conditions created in ArtPrize and was able to get a clearer image of some subtle dynamics that might be at work under the prize.

  1. Prizes diminish intrinsic motivation
    When participants are subject to rewards, regardless whether they win or lose, their interest in that activity for its own sake diminishes.
  2. Prizes rupture relationships
    Much of what we hear from artists in the media is positive regarding ArtPrize, but Kohn says participants in reward situations are under pressure in their relationships with the prize giver. “A powerful inducement has been created to conceal problems, to present yourself as infinitely competent, and to spend your energies trying to impress (or flatter) the person with power.” In ArtPrize, this power resides both with the public and the organization.  

    Pressures are also intensified between competing participants. Kohn points out that rewards concentrate attention on individual achievement and create separation between people. This separation is counter to research that shows that quality and innovation come from supportive, collaborative contexts. The situation is much worse when the rewards are artificially fixed and scarce. The irrational logic of scarcity intensifies negative feelings towards competitors because their success obstructs access to the prize. In the context of ArtPrize, it might be these pressures, not entrepreneurship, that better explain artists’ promotional tactics.
  3. Prizes discourage risk-taking
    Kohn reports that rewards short-circuit risk-taking and direct attention on the reward in an ever narrowing pursuit of whatever is perceived to elicit the reward. Rewards encourage the repetition of past solutions. They lessen attention to peripheral elements; minimize taking chances and playing with possibilities.

    The ArtPrize Worst Tumblr created a collage with an explanation of some of the trends that have been repeated among entries and across years.

    Risk-taking is recognized as essential for innovation in many fields, and in the practice of art is required for imaginative leaps, new connections, and material discoveries.
    The work presented in ArtPrize is significantly more traditional in format when compared with other comprehensive displays of contemporary art, especially on an international level. There is also dramatically less experimentation in the use of spaces and contexts. This could be for many reasons - minimal curatorial and institutional support and collaboration - but it could also be a sign that the structure discourages risk-taking and shifts the conditions for art to a more safe and conservative mode. It is telling that after almost 3,000 works of art have been presented in the last two years, none have caused serious concern or controversy. This alone seems evidence that risk-taking is constrained or minimized in some significant ways. Perhaps venues even avoid selecting challenging or edgy work in an effort to appeal to what they think people will like.

    ArtPrize has turned out the multitudes for a visual art event. This is a phenomenal feat that I don't quite understand. It was exciting to feel the energy of a crowd and to know people had come out to experience art. Such participation is significant because the arts are a highly potent aspect of our public sphere: a volatile and unpredictable space where we can practice and imagine ways we might think and be together. With the intense focus on material desires in the marketplace and a continuous barrage of images in the media, it is vital to have another context in which we can work out our relationships to these things and each other through rich cultural engagements in public space. Given the importance of the spatial and visual in contemporary life, I’m often surprised that there is not more regular interest in visual art.

  4. Prizes ignore reasons
    Rewards are introduced in situations where there is a desire for a dramatic shift in behavior. Kohn says that what makes incentives so appealing is "how little they demand of the intervener" and that they don't require any effort to understand the problems that existed in the first place. We experienced how the incentive and the marketing brought out masses of people, but we don’t know much more about the underlying problems and reasons. Problems that remain masked behind ArtPrize are: Why is there a disconnect between art and the public when visual and spatial issues are so dominant in contemporary human experience? Why don't people regularly seek out the visual arts as relief and remedy to these conditions? Does the public feel disenfranchised from art, its cultural institutions, and public space? What art do we need?

    Once the lists of the top 100, 50, and 25 are published other art gets ignored. Qualities that don't grab early engagement get less attention. In the mutable world of culture the process is not just an experiment, but creates and institutes real value. The conversations might be more about the horse-race than the art.
  5. Prizes punish
    Finally, for participants who do not win, prizes are a kind of punishment. What feedback do the losers get besides not getting a reward? Is it enough to sustain their development? Many artists claim they don't do it for the money, but is it reasonable to leave so many of them with no return while we acknowledge the proceeds gained by every other sector? The starkness of this contrast really set in during year two of ArtPrize.  Kohn cites research that shows even when participants say that the prize is not their motivation, it still punishes.

ArtPrize is not as much a democratic model as it is a market model. The huge and scarce prize structure incentivizes many things, but it is unclear how it directly activates either capital or cultural economies of art or results in trickle down economic flows to artists or the infrastructure and culture that support their practice. If the analysis about rewards above is accurate at all, we might be constraining and contorting both artists and the art in ways that don't result in producing the most effective and dynamic results.

ArtPrize plops a new edifice into place but leaves a lot of structural backfilling if we are to be an engaged public (viewers and artists alike) who support a qualitative and relevant progression of art. Will these structures and the leadership they require develop in a thickening of cultural organization, or are we each left alone in the crowd with our long shot at the prize and our atomized vote?

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 i think you make some good points here... though i am not sure that every artist thinks the same way in this regards... i think the majority of them may be involved in these dynamics on some unconcious level... i have seen the failure of rewards based initatiaves in my manufacturing, educational and mental health experiences so i do feel that it carries some validity... though these reasons could also be fodder for some "artists" to cop out, justifying their lack of cooperation or competitiveness.

 Paul, I am glad you wrote this and posted.  It articulates so many of the conclusions I had come to about AP and substantiates it with concrete studies.

With great wealth comes great responsibility. 

 What (besides a wad of cash) is the professional benefit to winning the AP?  If an Artists wins the Turner Prize it pretty much launches their career into the stratosphere. I don't think you can say the same thing about winning the AP.

I've recently concluded in a Facebook Note that I've written

that I believe AP isn't really interested in Paul's question. I don't believe AP is interested in using creatives to form a new economic model, rather they have formed an entrepreneurial model that uses creatives.