Smeeth Wins on the Toss of a Coin

Indigenous artist Richard Bell has revealed that he decided the winner of this year’s prestigious Sulman Prize on the toss of a coin. Bell awarded the prize to Peter Smeeth for his painting, The artist’s fate. Smeeth was reportedly less than impressed by the revelation, admitting, “It’s a bit deflating”. The Sir John Sulman Prize is awarded annually to ‘the best subject/genre painting and/or murals/mural project executed during the two years preceding the [closing] date’. It’s administered by the Art Gallery of NSW, which awards some of Australia’s most prestigious prizes for visual arts, including the Archibald (for portraiture) and the Wynne (for landscape). These two latter are awarded (occasionally to great controversy) by a committee of 11 trustees under the guidance of gallery director Edmund Capon. The Sulman, on the other hand, is determined by a single judge, appointed by Capon.

Richard Bell, who revels in the role of agent provocateur, reportedly compiled his shortlist on the basis that he likes animals, but added that he also felt obliged to break his animal-based method in order to include some of his friends. Defending his method of choosing the winner of the $20,000 prize, he added, “Like every prize, it’s a lottery.” The Sun-Herald reported that, even though winning such a prize can make or break a career, Edmund Capon agrees with the sentiment: ‘'It’s very much a matter of individual taste and instinct and the kind of aesthetic, wit and humour of the individual artist. And I like that.’'

The revelations prompted Crikey’s WH Chong to cite other instances of lotto metaphors for major art prizes: “Kiran Desai, winner of the Man Booker in 2006 with The Inheritance of Loss, says: ‘Awards are such a lottery.’ A.S. Byatt, whose novel Possession won the Man Booker in 1990, knows whereof she speaks: ‘I’ve won it and judged it and it’s a lottery.’”

The politics of awards have been much in the news. Locally, the Miles Franklin shortlist raised more than a few eyebrows last week, prompting a personal response from the Wheeler Centre’s Michael Williams: “Suddenly the arbitrary nature of literary awards seems cruel rather than useful.” In the UK, the administrators of the MAN Booker Prize have decided to award a special, posthumour Booker to Beryl Bainbridge, who was shortlisted five times but never won. In a special online poll, about 1000 readers judged her historical novel Master Georgie to be the best of her five Booker-nominated titles (it lost in 1998 to Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam). The special Booker has been derided as a condescending publicity stunt by Robert McCrum. The Guardian’s Sam Jordison denies there was never any conspiracy against Bainbridge, concluding, “Each year [the Booker] is a lottery.”

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