Belgium’s Biggest Art Prize Faces Important and Difficult Questions

The BelgianArtPrize became the focal point of a major controversy last month after announcing a shortlist of all white men for its 2019 prize.

The Palais des Beaux-Arts (BOZAR) in Belgium (photo by Fred Romero, via Flickr)
The Palais des Beaux-Arts (BOZAR) in Belgium (photo by Fred Romero, via Flickr)

On April 17, the BelgianArtPrize announced its four shortlisted candidates for the 2019 edition of the Prize: Sven Augustijnen, Koenraad Dedobbeleer, Gabriel Kuri, and artist duo Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys — all of them white men. The winner of the prize would not be announced until April 2019, when an exhibition with new work was slated to happen at the Palais des Beaux-Arts (BOZAR), but now that timeline has been upended and the prize’s future is mired in controversy. The debate, I believe, not only speaks to the situation in Belgium, but signals unresolved problems and conversations to be had in the Western art world at large.

BelgianArtPrize’s self-stated goal is to “stimulate talented leading artists living and working in Belgium, contributing to the development of their career and international visibility.” It is historically seen as the art prize in Belgium due to both its longevity (it was launched in 1950) and the center-stage visibility that comes with it. The organization that awards it, a non-profit association previously known as La Jeune Peinture Belge — which consists of “a group of art-lovers, professionals, and collectors” that work with the Brussels-based BOZAR — prides itself on making “shifts in the Prize’s objectives as to respond to the changing context of the contemporary art world.” The 2017 edition, for instance, lifted age restrictions and accepted nominations for any artist living in Belgium for over one year.

An open letter addressed to the BelgianArtPrize, members of the 2019 jury, BOZAR, and the sponsors on May 12 denounced its “flagrant exclusivity as a denial of social and aesthetic values.” The letter spoke for a Belgian art community that “stands for a different set of values than what you’ve put forward as representing our community.” As a Belgian working abroad but still concerned about the debates around social and cultural equity in my homeland, I also signed the letter. As of this writing, the letter has been signed by over 800 people, a significant number for a country as small as Belgium.

On May 21, in a statement first published on artnet, all the shortlisted artists (who weren’t addressed in the open letter) collectively withdrew from the prize, stating that they “were shortsighted by simply assuming that each one of us could follow on to be seen for our approach, or the content of our work. The all too rapid shift of public attention from artistic discourse or content — let alone merit — towards white male privilege is frankly something that we regret.” For them, art is no longer “at the core” of the debate. (Full disclosure: I have worked with some of the nominated artists and have no doubt the work of all has ample aesthetic merit.)

Finally, on May 24, the BelgianArtPrize responded to the controversy and announced that it will not award the 2019 prize. The announcement echoes the shortlisted artists’ concern that art has been left out of the equation, and that the debate prevents the nominees from producing new work and gaining visibility on national and international levels.

Instead of a dialogue, this debate has reached an impasse: no new artworks, no conversations, only the blame game. Such a deadlock in the cultural field is worrisome. In a landscape where funding is limited, infighting only increases anemia.

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The exterior of the BOZAR (photo © Yannick Sas)
The exterior of the BOZAR (photo © Yannick Sas)

Before going into a closer reading of the arguments, a few facts about Belgium: the country offers high-quality public education, and I, too, have greatly benefited from it. Its public art museums have globally recognized historic and modern collections that have inspired me since childhood. It’s also worth noting that, according to the 2011 census, there are 104 women for every 100 men in the country; one out of seven people officially registered in Belgium wasn’t born in the country, and one in 10 is not a white Caucasian. Given these numbers, how can a shortlist of all white males not be a concern?

I would like to use this occasion to take the pressure away from the individual level — this is not a “witch hunt” — and bypass the ubiquitous rhetoric of victimization, blaming, or self-defense. It has been pointed out repeatedly that none of the individuals publicly involved in the prize discriminate. I believe that. (Jury members are publicly announced, but the group of art experts who were approached to present nomination, as well as the conditions that they had to fulfill to be able to nominate artists, are unclear.) Bias, however, is not only voluntary, but lives and reproduces subcutaneously through our institutions and our learned bodily and spatial reflexes: it is in the air we breathe. The choices we make may have a different impact than the ones we intended. What’s more, the prize is more than a set of individuals: it is an institution with a history and cultural responsibility that have an impact on the future of the art field. It reflects and reverberates.

The “core” of this controversy is art, yet there has been no arguing about that. But any prize, and particularly a prize that has such weight, should take its context and social impact into consideration. Art is made by artists, and artists are a crossroads of personal intuition and autonomous drive, but also of education, cultural exposure, social class, gender, etc. The latter elements are, whether we like it or not — and whether we acknowledge it or not — informed by unconscious gender and racial bias. A simple example: only 3–5 % of art in major US and European collections is made by women.

Otobong Nkanga (right), winner of the 2017 BelgianArtPrize; and Maarten Vanden Eynde (left), 2017 ING Public Prize winner (photo © Yannick Sas)
Otobong Nkanga (right), winner of the 2017 BelgianArtPrize; and Maarten Vanden Eynde (left), 2017 ING Public Prize winner (photo © Yannick Sas)

The BelgianArtPrize has prided itself on the fact that it does not ask its jury to apply what they call “quotas.” This echoes a long-standing debate about affirmative action held on this side of the Atlantic. Imposing quotas, well intended as it may be, doesn’t allow for long-term solutions or changes because it addresses a structural, social problem through administrative means instead of through self-reflection and heightened awareness. But by refusing quotas, the prize is not absolved from thinking about its impact, its history, its self-proclaimed contemporaneity, or the forms of sensitization it does and does not promote. The fact that last year, a woman of Nigerian descent — Otobong Nkanga, who also signed the letter — was awarded the prize, and this year it has a shortlist full of white men, does not point to post-gender or post-racial equity, as the prize may imply it does. Rather, it indicates that the prize fell back into a pre-existing automatism that reproduces bias.

Now that the elephant is visibly in the room, it is time to do some deep soul-searching. I’m saddened by the fact that the letter has been dismissed as merely a war of words or as being not concerned with art. These dismissals skirt around a blind spot of structural and systemic bias. Let’s engage this blindness and ask why we may experience discomfort. Let’s study the history of racial and gender inequity. Let’s study which hegemonic structures have formed and support the prize, and what structural problems they may reproduce, whether voluntarily or not. Let’s ask which nominees may in fact need the exposure the prize promises. Let’s ask whether the prize is successful in achieving its stated goals. Let’s ask what is expected of the jury. I do believe that effectively making structures visible — from the pre-nomination process, the selection methods, the nomination acceptance protocol itself, and the selection of the jury, to the institutional and creative commitments that come with the award — can raise self-consciousness and consequently indicate spheres of action. This takes time, but what is there to lose if it means we can truly change with our time?

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