WANNER: Arts corrupted, or something like it, and how to avoid it
What you need to know:
- This is a serious dilemma to be sure. Ahmed runs a very important art space. His competitions mean that one can get some well-deserved recognition.
- But you see, my young friend does not really need this space. She has a bigger world. Ahmed has helped her in many other ways.
- Because she has access to him, he has given her links to people, exposed her work and, in this age of social media shared generously of his audience about her work.
Two weeks back, I had a chat with a young friend. She was very unhappy because she has been entering some art competitions run by a mutual friend who I will call Ahmed.
“Even when I am the most qualified,’ she complained, ‘our friend always never selects me. He told me that because people know we are friends, they would conclude that I am biased.”
I however thought there was a way around this.
“Why are you entering the competitions and risking compromising Ahmed?” I enquired.
She responded that it was because she was doing good work.
This is a serious dilemma to be sure. Ahmed runs a very important art space. His competitions mean that one can get some well-deserved recognition.
But you see, my young friend does not really need this space. She has a bigger world. Ahmed has helped her in many other ways. Because she has access to him, he has given her links to people, exposed her work and, in this age of social media shared generously of his audience about her work. Ahmed may be deliberately not allowing her to win a competition but, she has received from him and will continue receiving much more than any of Ahmed’s competition winners have ever received.
This conversation has been playing back and forth in my mind this week.
I am currently reading through about 120 short stories entered for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize from all over the Commonwealth region. There were two ways I could have done them. I could have judged the short stories as I read them or, I could have downloaded a zip file of all of them, read them with my Wi-Fi off at my leisure while taking notes and then logged back on and then marked with a yes, no or maybe. The first method meant I would have seen where the stories were coming from, if not necessarily the names of the writers. Having facilitated a fair share of workshops on the continent, this meant I ran the risk of being biased once I read a story and saw where the writer was from as it may have been quite easy to tell how past participants in my workshop write. As it is, of course I shall still exhibit some bias. But it will be bias based on the craft rather than possible personal relations. It is also useful that I am not the only person judging but that there are four other people, some of whom are more competent than me who will select winners.
But how would it have been if I had been the sole judge, the names of the competitors and their nationalities were on the short stories, and my young friend or any of the other people I know had entered the competition?
The right thing and the only thing to do would have been to inform whoever contracted me to judge the short stories and request that the stories by my friends be either disqualified or I be excused from judging the competition.
It seems like a small thing. “After all, it’s just a competition.”
This is true. It is just a competition.
But no matter how small it may seem to some, it’s important that when one judges anything they not only judge fairly but are seen to be judging fairly.
My young friend may have thought that they were the most qualified but those who do not have a relationship with Ahmed may not think so.
Artists are often at the forefront in complaining about corruption. We make a nose when officials from the Department of Culture attend the Cannes Film Festival or the Oscars in the US and get big allowances while there is said to be no budget for filmmakers in Kenya. We complain when non-nationals represent the country at the Venice Biennale. We are angry when we travel to the US to perform and have nowhere to stay yet officials who are not performing are staying in five star hotels with their mpangos. And all these are seriously corrupt practices where people should have been brought to book.
But how clean our hands? When my young friend says she is the best at what she does, how sure is she that some governor’s wife who got a tender in the county run by the same governor is not the best at what she claims to be offering? So perhaps to avoid this, in all sectors of society, we should not only be avoiding bias but staying away from appearance of bias.