“And the Winner is” then followed by a ridiculously long pause the name “Bob Dylan”. Though I don’t usually follow music industry awards closely or arts awards more generally I was, none the less, at first speculating that the Nobel Prize for literature had been rebranded as the Turner prize for literature. If there was a Nobel prize for controversial winners they could award it to themselves.
The Nobel prize might require a lifetime of effort but it is not a lifetime achievement award. Surely it has a function to introduce a wider public to international work of outstanding quality, to support the writers financially, to offer the status of the winner as protection to those who might be persecuted for their views. Poor penniless, persecuted, unknown Bob Dylan, I thought. If only he had been a white male things might have been so different. Why couldn’t the award have gone to someone who was more of a social commentator, someone capable of riding the rodeo horse of the zeitgeist without falling off, to someone memorably capturing and reflecting the mood and feelings of his generations, someone prolific, lyrical and memorable – someone like – well Bob Dylan for instance.
It’s been a long time since the Nobel prize has needed to be dumbed down. Everyone will have their own favourite examples. One of mine is Barack Obama’s peace prize – unfairly given before he even had a chance to start any wars, maybe just in case. It seemed at a time more a prize for being black in America. It’s true he did manage not to get shot by the police. In some parts of America that is quite an achievement but hey – he’s still relatively young.
It always seems to me that Art happens when narrative is separated from intelligence. It’s a sort of psychological displacement activity when a behaviour that seems unconnected from some conflict is indulged in. Reactions to Dylan’s award are like this too. These reactions are certainly polarized. The choice of Dylan was not a knee jerk reaction because the average age of the Nobel committee cruelly denies them access to that possibility. Perhaps in future populism should be given due scope. Why shouldn’t it replace merit as a criterion. So why don’t we give the Nobel prize for Physics to Zefram Cochrane who in 2063 invented the warp drive that changed space exploration forever.
Culture is not a static matter. In the visual arts we have moved from brilliant representational work through progressive distortions of form to reconceptualization till it has become like looking longingly at the chair a dearly loved departed one used to sit in. Congreve not Shakespeare said ‘Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast’. It is said to transcend words. So why don’t we give literature prizes to composers?
My parents were horrified when Elvis came on the scene. Now parents and grandparents are horrified that he is not. The times they are a changing. The Nobel committee has radically embraced the social context of the work and the musical and performance element. It is a return to the bardic tradition, as holistic as homeopathy. Sara Danius the Nobel Academy’s secretary was no doubt upset that she had failed to get hold of Dylan. Just Like a Woman. But then there is another school of thought that if the committee wants to be radical they should consider giving more prizes to women – someone has calculated that only 49 of 825 prizes have gone to women.
The writer VS Naipaul said of award of the prize to an Nigerian writer, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten ,words to the effect that it was like the Nobel committee was pissing on literature. Not something to be tried if you are just blowin in the wind.