Culture Vulture

Why shouldn't there be a Nobel Prize in Art?

If Swedish Academy is truly broad-minded, it will hand out new prizes instead of controversies over definitions

Let us agree that music is an almost universal language and that sometimes two-line lyrics may hold as much meaning as a 200-page novel. But chords as much as words make Bob Dylan an artist, alongside the unsung poet Dylan Thomas, who inspired him.

The problem of Dylan's Nobel Prize in Literature is not the art or artist, but the irrational category. Wouldn't the Nobel Peace Prize have been more apt? Certainly, it would be less divisive and no slap in the face for other artists of communication.

After last week's announcement, novelists Irvine Welsh and Jodi Picoult reacted on Twitter with less than overwhelming enthusiasm to Dylan's accolade.

Welsh wanted to know whether American novelist Don De Lillo would be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Picoult wondered whether she could now win a Grammy Award.

The problem of Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature is not the art or artist, but the irrational category. Wouldn’t the Nobel Peace Prize have been more apt? Certainly, it would be less divisive and no slap in the face for other artists of communication.

Both then spent the next few days on social media dealing with angry reactions and waving their own credentials as Dylan fans.

Picoult called him a poet and explained that she was making a joke.

Welsh said Dylan's "lyrics are pretty average without their interplay with the music" and that he has a problem with lumping music in with literature. "Music is the highest art form. Dylan is one of the world's greatest musical icons," he said.

Not since United States President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 - for existing and nothing much else at the time - has an award generated this much debate about its validity and aim.

To criticise the Swedish Academy's choice of the American singer as Nobel literature laureate is narrowing the very definition of literature, surely?

Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey were oral stories. Shakespeare's texts were written to be performed.

Dylan's lyrics have been gleefully quoted for decades. Covers of his songs have made other bands famous. One of the most memorable scenes in novelist Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything - pays homage to Dylan's Blowin In The Wind.

No, Welsh has a point. Those who work within the confines of book covers and print should feel rightfully sidelined, just as musicians should feel unreasonably trapped by the Swedish Academy's definition.

It is music and lyrics that make Dylan a poet - or as some call him, a bard in the Homeric tradition. Strip one away from the other and the remainder is not as impressive.

Dylan's own comment after his win was announced is telling. His only response, pounced upon by news media, was to strap on a guitar and play live for the first time in four years.

He is indisputably an artist. As an artist, he deserves 8 million Swedish krona (S$1.26 million) in December. Maybe it is time to stop giving a prize specifically for literature and rename the prize the Nobel Prize in Art.

If that is illegal, given the statement in Alfred Nobel's will that one part of his fortune go "to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction", then surely another prize for art could be created.

It has been done before.

A new Nobel prize was established for the economic sciences in 1969, these not falling under the established categories of Physics, Chemistry and Medicine. Why should the arts be given less recognition for their life-changing capabilities than the sciences?

Dylan's win this year paints the Swedish Academy as broad- minded. Cool. Hip. In tune with popular sentiment.

Fans may eagerly await next year's announcement, thinking that now Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki may win the Nobel Literature Prize for breathtaking visual storytelling. Or perhaps minimalist composer Steve Reich for creating an entirely new musical language.

Surely "the times they are a-changin'", to quote this year's laureate.

Not really.

The Nobel Literature Prize remains confined to a definition of literature that includes oratory (Sir Winston Churchill), theatre (Harold Pinter, George Bernard Shaw) and journalism (last year's winner Svetlana Alexievich, who wrote crucial biographies of women in World War II and those affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster).

It consistently continues to skip an incredibly influential group of literati who have shaped the art of storytelling for decades, notably in Asia. The Nobel Prize in Literature has yet to be given to a cartoonist or graphic novelist.

The late Osamu Tezuka gave voice to post-nuclear Japan and ancient India in manga comics such as Astro Boy and Buddha. He influenced and continues to inspire dozens of comics artists and theatre-makers and storytellers. For some reason, he escaped the notice of the Swedish Academy before his death.

Equally ignored was Indian author and cartoonist R. K. Laxman, who died last year after decades capturing India's turbulent political history and social struggles in his editorial cartoons featuring "the common man".

The Swedish Academy has given the literature prize this year to a multi-hyphenate musician in a move that aims to silence those who say the judges are old- fashioned, focused on the West and deliberately disdainful of popular sentiment.

Except this year's choice only underlines that they need more knowledge about the stories that have shaped a large proportion of the human population. Or perhaps they need greater will to demonstrate that the arts deserve as much recognition as the sciences.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2016, with the headline 'Why shouldn't there be a Nobel Prize in Art?'. Subscribe