Lottery Lives

Current art-funding schemes, despite their meritocratic veneer, remain incurably unjust. It is time, says Michaële Cutaya, for a radical shake-up.

Most critics of meritocracy focus on its failure to live up to the ideal of offering equal opportunities to rise according to one’s own merit and hard work. In his 2020 book The Tyranny of Merit, What’s Become of the Common Good?, however, Michael J Sandel takes issue with the concept of meritocracy itself: that we are responsible for our fate and succeed through our own doing, just as when we fail we have no one to blame but ourselves. He takes Michael Young’s 1958 dystopian vision The Rise of the Meritocracy as a cautionary tale. Young, writing as a 2033 historian, sums up what could go wrong if the meritocratic ideal is carried through: ‘Today all persons, however humble, know they have had every chance ... Are they not bound to recognise that they have an inferior status – not as in the past because they were denied opportunity; but because they are inferior? For the first time in human history the inferior man has no ready buttress for his self-regard.’ Young ends his story by predicting a populist revolt in 2034 of the less-educated classes against the meritocratic elites. We may be slightly ahead of schedule.

As a professor at Harvard, Sandel is concerned by how the ‘great talent hunt’ that meritocracy demands has turned ‘higher education into a hyper-competitive sorting contest’. The credentialing function of colleges and universities is overwhelming their educational mission. In response, he proposes to ‘chasten merit’s hubris’ in summoning chance and pointing out that who happens to possess the talents that a society values at a given time is just as much a matter of chance as being born in affluence or poverty. Even the ability to take on hard work will rely on a whole set of circumstances that have little to do with one’s own merit. He thus argues that for the admission process to universities to reflect the arbitrariness of the distribution of life’s gifts they should adopt a lottery of the qualified.

Among the many issues that the impact of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has brought up, or perhaps rather recast, is the remit of public arts funding. The expectations of what arts councils should do to support the arts have, vastly expanded – and so have, to various degrees, their budgets. Sensing that this represents a not-to-be-missed opportunity, we, a small group of art practitioners, decided to draft proposals to be discussed with the Arts Council of Ireland that addressed some of the shortcomings in the application process which we felt would improve their relationship with the arts community.

Two things happened: one was that, though we aimed to focus on simple practical changes, we quickly realised that we had opened up wider questions exceeding what a letter could achieve. The other was that in speaking with artists to gather their experiences and insights, we touched on not just frustration and annoyance with the application process but also unexpected levels of despondency – and not only from those who can be all-too-handily framed as ‘losers’ struggling with the administrative requirements of making an application for instance, but also from those we might have expected to be the designated ‘winners’, the up-and-coming, credentialled artists in this singular arms race. In spite of well-published criteria, several tutorial sessions and readily available feedback with graded scores, the dominant impression from the selection process is one of arbitrariness.

The process is not so different from the higher-education admissions process that some understanding could not be gained from arguments about the latter. In a 2013 article, Peter Stone also advocated the use of lotteries for admitting students, but he is less concerned about the hubris and humiliation that the reliance on standardised examinations might generate than about the question of fairness: namely, what is the fairest way to distinguish between competing claims?

Stone points out that the principle of a lottery to distinguish between equal claims has few opponents; what is contentious, however, is whether there ever are equal claims. The question then hinges on what can be considered as equal claims and how much effort should go into distinguishing between them. No one seriously advocates making no distinction whatever; too fine distinctions, however, can easily conflate with arbitrariness. Stone points out that, if low levels of scrutiny can make clear distinctions between claims, with minimal risk of bias intruding, ‘for higher levels of scrutiny, the balance shifts in the other direction, until the undetected distinctions between claims become small enough to be easily conflated with arbitrary social factors unrelated to fairness’.

Thus, a lottery which, above a given threshold, distinguishes between claimants without reference to reasons, would thereby ensure that reasons unrelated to fairness taint the process.

To a large extent, Stone’s considerations can be transposed to how arts funding is distributed between applicants – here I’m thinking of artist-led applications such as project awards and bursaries, rather than annual funding for national organisations, which raises a different set of issues. Selection processes might vary between arts councils but, routinely, applications go through an eligibility assessment before being handed to a jury panel.

The applications are then graded through a series of criteria that include variations around artistic merit/originality of the idea, track records of the applicant/s, the feasibility of the proposal and potential impact on audiences; only once applications have been graded by all members of the jury can discussions begin. One can readily imagine the difficulties that grading artistic practices and art projects involves. Arts councils’ literature is full of qualitative terms such as ‘excellence’ or ‘great art’ but they are given little content and can mean very different things to different people.

Over the past few months, once-fringe ideas – such as an artist basic income – have been moving mainstream, and a number of alternative selection processes are already being tried. Kultureprojekte, for instance, which is funded by the city of Berlin, allocated a Covid-19-related bursary through a lottery where all qualified applications (to be a professional artist resident in Berlin) entered a draw for 2,000 bursaries of €9,000. Elsewhere, a set-sum award was automatically given to all applications reaching a 50% score. Different awards could benefit from different selection processes, and various levels of pre-selection – based on a simplified application form – combined with a lottery could certainly be considered. It could be decided whether funding goes to all eligible applications or those reaching a 50% score, or some higher score to be determined – bearing in mind Stone’s warning that the finer the distinction the greater the possibilities of prejudices intruding. Sandel had proposed that the lottery could adjust to diversity criteria by giving additional ‘lottery tickets’ to the favoured category.

Lessening the intensity of the competition over scarce resources might promote more solidarity among artists. It would also make redundant much discussion about selection criteria because these would have a reduced impact. Stone makes the point that, although admission officers can congratulate themselves for having selected successful students, this did not mean the selection was fair, because there are many ‘right choices’. To paraphrase: ‘If the rejected applications have reasons for being funded that are just as good as the reasons for the applications receiving funding, and no lottery is used, then a serious unfairness is being committed.’ A lottery would thus be a fairer way to allocate funding and would enable a larger diversity of artists, projects and practices to be supported.

Sandel contended that recognising and accepting the role of chance in human affairs would humble the winners and restore dignity to the losers, and how ‘a lively sense of the contingency of our lot’ would point towards a more generous public life. Perhaps there are signs that this is happening. It is heartening to see the topic of chance and lotteries being increasingly discussed, with citizen assemblies drawn by lot tentatively (re)entering the democratic process with some good results. With the rather unedifying spectacle that elections have become and the challenges ahead, perhaps this might be a good time to try the luck of the draw instead.

Michaële Cutaya is a writer on art living in County Galway. She is editor of Circa Art Magazine.

First published in Art Monthly 442: Dec-Jan 20-21.

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