Some thoughts on the Nasher Prize

Nasher Sculpture Center
May 28, 2015 5:50PM

By Michael Corris

News item: “At Christie’s evening sale in New York on May 11, Alberto Giacometti’s life-size sculpture L’homme au doigt (Pointing Man) will be for sale for the first time at auction. The work has been owned by a ‘distinguished private collector’ for the last 45 years, according to a statement from Christie’s. The auction house has estimated that the piece will sell ‘in the region of $130 million,’ which would break the current auction record for the entire medium of sculpture.”


Thus, a typical example of auction house frenzy passes before our eyes. We are inured to this sort of thing, this vulgar boost to the commonplace that in art, as in life, the trappings of success equate to value. Rubbish!


Does anyone recall Clement Greenberg’s melancholic observation that artists are tied to the world via an umbilical cord of gold? He bemoaned that fact when he scribbled it down in 1939. What pathos now attaches to such an observation? Surely, the paradoxical nature of the artist’s life has dissolved into a parody of itself, thanks to the over-heated professionalism lurking in contemporary art


Against this ground, what can we say about a prize of $100,000 to be awarded to an artist of significance working in the vastly expanded field of sculpture? Do we need it? Could it possibly be the right thing to do?


Yes! I am convinced that the acknowledgment of an artist’s achievement can be discharged with intelligence and grace if it is done so by his/her/their peers. This is the path that the Nasher Prize has taken, from the composition of the panel charged with making such a judgment to the conditions of the award.


There is no person on the panel who is not supremely qualified to make such a judgment. Moreover, the chosen artist is not required to perform — by making a work of art as a condition of the award — or to compete. There is no public shortlist and the deliberations of the panel will remain confidential.


I suppose one might say that the Nasher Prize is ethically neutral. Yet, one must expect more of such an accolade. The Nasher Prize has the potential to do something profoundly moral, something that will transcend the norms of a market-saturated world of art. In short, the Nasher Prize has the potential to recognize the achievement of an artist whose work has been under-recognized or simply unacknowledged.


That old school moral compass, Ad Reinhardt scolded us, saying, “the business of an artist is to exhibit work”. He was clear about the meaning of this injunction: to be an artist one need not be a celebrity and does not need any more money, possessions or status than anyone else.


The Nasher Prize has the potential to exemplify this sentiment as it assesses the lifetime of work by artists of significance. I invite the Nasher Prize panel to dream, and while dreaming to achieve something wonderful, astonishing, and good for art.  

Michael Corris is Professor of Art at the Meadows School of the Arts/SMU and a member of the Nasher’s Program Advisory Committee.

Nasher Sculpture Center