The Best Reward is No Award
An Acceptance Speech

Thank you.  Thank you so very much.  I never thought I’d be standing here holding this award.

When people are creative, we often call them artistic.  But I can’t even tell you what art is.  No one can.  And I think that’s the point.  There are beautiful things that people do that defy description. We sometimes, being human, overlay those things with beliefs and prejudices.  But, any artist worth their canvas will tell you that the one thing they know about creativity is that it has no boundaries.  Art, itself, is infinitely wide and often ambiguous. And when there’s no such thing as a “boundary,” there’s no such thing as a “best.”  A boundary is limiting.  A “best” is something confined to a boundary.  For example, today, the best sprinter alive — the person runs the fastest — is Usain Bolt. His boundary is the finish line.  He gets there first.  He is the best.  In art there is no finish line.

This afternoon, I wanted some good Chinese food, so I Googled ‘“Best’ Chinese Take-out” and for a while, I considered what it is to be “best.” Claiming to be the best is really only a polite way of saying that everyone else isn’t as good.  That may be an accurate measurement for Chinese food, but to say that anyone is the best in art isn’t so much a sign of excellence as it is a sign of misguided consensus.  So, thank you very much for this consensus. 

Thank you, mom and dad, for making this consensus possible.  And thank you everyone I’ve ever known (even those of you who hate me) but especially Mr. Maxwell, my high School track coach who once told me that any activity where you needed a judge in order to score wasn’t a sport.  This explains my aversion to figure skating and synchronized swimming.

As I was saying, art can’t be described.  But, here we are in awards season, the time of year when we convince ourselves that it’s necessary to determine what’s the best movie, what’s the best music, and who among us is the most artistically “best.”  Yes, I said it:   “Most Best.”  Truth is, we’re not looking for great art.  We’re looking for a simple answer and we like giving awards. We want a quantification — something in the ONE spot  — an uncomplicated vision of the world, when there is none.  And so, with these awards instead of creating an atmosphere for great art, we’re creating a high holy days for the cult of edifice and personality. 

As I speak to you tonight, the best thing I can say about this award is that it’s a great advertisement… for me, to be sure, but also for the institutions who will commodify me and overcharge you.  The worst thing I can say about this award is that it limits our culture.  It confines us and convinces us that the thing artists strive for is to win a race. 

If you have artistic talent, let it unfold. Let it flower. Share it.  But above all, don’t turn your discovery of the mystery in art into a competition. The wonder of your creation will disappear in a race to the finish line.  You’ll either be a loser… or a winner of a soul-sucking race to the trophy case where you’ll hold a prize like the one I’m holding… temporarily.  I’m sure someone else is far more deserving.  Please, take my award. And remember, great art lives in a world without boundaries.  Accept this.

Thank you very much, again.  And by the way, the Chinese take-out was horrible.

— Nathan Callahan

First Broadcast February 7, 2014

© / Nathan Callahan / all rights reserved


Broadcasting Fridays at 8:50 am from KUCI 88.9 fm Orange County, California