Art Shouldn’t Be Competitive

Categories Cultivating Creativity
Art Shouldn't be Competitive - a metaphor

The other day, my youngest son won a regional art competition. He painted some flowers. They looked really good. He got a medal. His mom took a nice picture. We celebrated with ice cream sandwiches. Good times were had by all.

But this seemingly innocuous celebration really got me thinking.

Are art and competition compatible?

Is there value in conditioning children (or adults) to compare their work against each other on merit? Does it help anything? Does it hurt anything?

After some reflection, I came to the belief that it does more harm than help.

And I’ll tell you why.

Ranking art shifts the focus of creation away from a process of discovery towards a focus on product creation. While this product-focused approach might lead to greater gains in technical skill and classical appreciation, it does so at the risk of innovation and experimentation.

Moreover, stack ranking potentially places the power of ranking art in the hands of a few. Surely this isn’t always the case, but it certainly opens up the possibility, which for me, foundationally undermines the way that I value artistic creation.

Just to clarify, I do think there’s a place for professional artists to learn technical capabilities in their training. What I’m talking about here is solely around judging and stack ranking creative work. 

Being Competitive

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with competition. In fact, in a lot of situations, it’s pretty important.

A non-competitive baseball game would kind of suck.

Likewise, business competition works pretty well. Free market capitalism has showered us with all kinds of cool technologies and advancements.

But look, just because something works in one situation, doesn’t mean it’s transferable. I mean, that parka might be an awesome coat in winter, but you’d be a damn fool to wear it in July.

That’s what I don’t get.

Some people act like it’s a badge of honor to be competitive about EVERYTHING.

You know who I’m talking about. They’re competitive about anything from a foot race to who can tie their shoes the fastest.

And people believe thinks this is good!

The truth is that we value competitiveness in this culture.

In the western world, competition creates wealth and power. The best and brightest get the best jobs. They make the most money. They play on the best teams.

Want to be president, you gotta win a vote. Wanna be CEO, you gotta beat the competition. Etc.

Now certainly this isn’t always true, and I’m sure you could think up a handful of exceptions. But, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t the narrative we’re fed from a young age.

So why wouldn’t art be the same? Shouldn’t the best creators get to be the famous artists? Won’t pitting children against each other in a creative Thunderdome help up tease out the winners early?

Other People’s Opinions

It just doesn’t work this way. I mean, how many fantastic artists do you know right now that aren’t rich and famous?

Probably not many. Think about your writer friend. He might be a fantastic writer, but you probably still sigh when he mentions his work.

The reason? We rely on competitive channels to tell us what art is good. Be it the radio, museums, schools. We attribute good art to those that have already won the art competition. That’s why it’s easier to celebrate dead authors, and established artists. It’s also why it’s damn hard to start a successful band.

But who exactly were the judges?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy the cream always rises story. I think there are countless reasons why certain creators become successful. However, placing art in a competitive arena reifies these hidden distinctions and decisions.

Oh, that Oscar-winning movie must be great. Oh, that Nobel laureate’s book must be good.

Creation is inherently subjective. Placing it under the same strains as the economy or sports put the power of that subjectivity into the hands of a few.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t need other people to tell me what I like.

Stop the Competition

The reality is that Art and Competition just don’t belong in the same room.

I’m not saying that good art shouldn’t be celebrated. Sure, we should call out strong achievements in creations, but we don’t need rando committees to stack rack our options.  I mean, does anyone know what makes one movie empirically better than a second?

Neither am I saying that we should consider all creation good. Absolutely, some things are just terrible. Did you ever “Dude, where’s my car?”. Indeed, a movie that should that of never been.

But you know, I wouldn’t stand in the way of someone who wanted to make that movie. Nor would I judge you too harshly for liking it.

So what about you and your stuff?

I get it. You want to stand out, to stick out among the noise. You want to win.

I mean, get on the internet and read blogs. Almost every music blog isn’t really about music, it’s about promotion. It’s about distributing, and being amazing, and thinking of something new.

It’s all tied up in acceleration and winning. Getting paid.

But to what end?

There’s plenty of time. What you lose in this rat race is the value of the creation itself.

The value of carving out an authentic voice.

It need not be a competition. It’s about you discovering things, and that takes time.

Celebrate the process, not that shiny product at the end. Not the song, not the book, and certainly not the units sold. The pursuit of this end might get you something, but I don’t know if you’d call it art.

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Art Shouldn’t Be Competitive
Your partner in crime.

My examples: writing, music, musing, birdhouse building