Some shocking news out today that American folk legend Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, becomes the first songwriter to ever earn the distinction and the first American since Toni Morrison won in 1993.
As Colin Paterson points out for the BBC, the Swedish Academy has made a canny choice, and not just for the headlines it will inevitably grab by awarding the music superstar. “The decision elevates song lyrics to being on a critical par with literature, poetry and play writing,” Paterson writes, “It's a big step away from the self-perpetuating intellectualism and elitism for which the award had been criticized.”
It’s not hard to see his point. A quick look at the list of Literature laureates since the mid-twentieth century reveals big names like Jean-Paul Sartre, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Rabindranath Tagore, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but few authors or artists recognizable outside the walls of a graduate seminar room. This is not a bad thing per se—the intellectuals and creative minds that shape society most deeply are often neglected by mass audiences, and the Prize is not a popularity contest.
But likewise there is no good reason for the popularity of an artist or writer to be a strike against his or her cultural significance. True, Dylan’s work has long inspired a cottage industry of scholarly analysis (complete with a 2009 Cambridge Companion!), but he was, is, and will be remembered primarily as a folk artist, giving voice to the popular sentiments of a pivotal generation.
So by awarding Dylan the Nobel Committee has helped to expand the working definition of civil society and creative culture. Not just that amorphous thing out there defined and dominated by credentialed intelligentsia, civil society is rather something we all participate in. At a time when the sneering imperiousness of an insulated global elite invites the sort of popular backlash that can fuel noxious and self-destructive phenomena like Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, Dylan’s victory comes as a welcome affirmation of common values.
Moreover, Dylan’s prize reflects another change in the way the Swedish Academy chooses its honorees. Whereas laureates like Elie Wiesel, Kofi Annan, or Lech Walesa all received their prizes for work they had completed at the time, the Prize has also played a more aspirational, forward-looking role, noticeably moreso in recent years: Barack Obama controversially received the prize in 2009, the year he was elected, as a sort of international sign of good will for his coming tenure; Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was named a Peace laureate this year no doubt in large part to encourage voters in that country to approve the work he had done to secure an accord with guerrilla rebels after decades of civil war (Columbian voters didn’t take the hint). The Academy has been willing, then, to use the notoriety that the Prize attracts in order to try to help secure future gains, rather than catalogue accomplished feats.
Though these examples come from the world of international politics, Dylan’s prize represents something similar in the field of art. The Academy isn’t rewarding Dylan for any particular work, song, or album, but for the full scope of his life’s work and “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” This Prize comes as a statement of hope that Dylan’s artistry will stand the test of time—that the spirit of hope, humanity, and righteous anger that so animated his work might continue to guide us after he is no longer on the scene.
Using the Prize in this way is not a cop-out or a cheap grab at nostalgia, as some polemicists have alleged (the Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh damned the Dylan prize as the work of “senile, gibbering hippies”). Rather, it embodies the noblest sentiments of an award that was always meant to single out work “in an ideal direction,” as Alfred Nobel wrote in his will in 1895.
Photo: Concert of Dylan, Joan Baez, and Santana; Photo Credit: Heinrich Klaffs via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA