The season of prize ceremonies is upon us. With the award of top literary honours to Alan Hollinghurst for his novel The Line of Beauty, the annual round of posh frocks, cheap champagne and embarrassing speeches began in earnest. The long-established and much-venerated Booker - now Man Booker, following the arrival of a new sponsor and more cash - could be seen as the official starter's gun for a marathon that warmed up with the Mercury in September, and which will canter through the Turner, the Whitbread, the Brits, the Baftas and the Oscars before ending with the Orange in May.
The new kid on the block, architecture's Stirling Prize, built up excitement a few days before the Booker by bestowing honours on that delightfully entertaining addition to the London landscape known as the "Gherkin" (30 St Mary Axe, designed by Foster and Partners). Yet despite such an inspired choice, all these prizes can seem quite ludicrous.
Take the case of film. There are the Baftas, the Bifas (British Independent Film Awards), the Golden Globes and the Independent Spirit Awards, as well as honours from societies of critics on every continent. For most people, however, the only night that counts is the Oscars. Furthermore, how can artistic expression ever be fairly measured in a contest? Often, utterly contrasting artists are pitched against each other, and sometimes the result is hopelessly wrong. Ian McEwan is undoubtedly a worthy winner of the Booker, but not for Amsterdam. Martin Scorsese's tour de force Raging Bull was pipped for Best Picture by Robert Redford's sentimental Ordinary People, while The Usual Suspects was beaten by Braveheart, Mel Gibson's woad'n'dreadlocked piece of Scottish nonsense.
It could drive a person to dismiss the lot of them. Though tempting, that might be a bit unfair, as winning a prize of note can turn an artist/actor/author from a garret-inhabiting pauper into a person of substance, and yield a serious assessment of their work. It is hard to begrudge Yann Martel - who won the Booker in 2002 for his charming Life of Pi - the proceeds of an estimated 1.7 million worldwide sales. Grayson Perry, the nicest transvestite potter you could ever wish to meet, secured cutting-edge credibility when he picked up the Turner Prize last year. And the fortunes of a clutch of British actors long treasured over here have been transformed by the Oscar limelight, leading to such unlikely scenarios as the action man Vin Diesel showering flowers upon Dame Judi Dench because he wanted her to co-star in his new film, The Chronicles of Riddick. It would never have happened without her award-winning cameo in Shakespeare in Love.
Just being in the race can matter. Tracey Emin did not win the Turner Prize in 1999, but many people think of her unmade bed and believe she did. David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas was one of the losers at this year's Man Booker, but the tag "hottest favourite in years" should nevertheless boost sales. Meanwhile, the Q Awards have been cemented in the public consciousness by Elton John's wonderfully venomous put-down of Madonna, who failed to win Best Live Act.
Some art forms depend on the combination of a big cheque and a dose of celebrity competition to come to the fore. Furniture design jumped out of the style sections and into the news pages in September thanks to the £15,000 Jerwood Applied Arts Prize. The venerable Gramophone magazine this year resorted to deploying celebrities such as Joanna Lumley to back its shortlist for Classical Record of the Year. The tactic generated welcome publicity and an enormous hike in sales - not to be sniffed at when the genre is constantly rumoured to be on the verge of demise.
Yet it is well known that some less scrupulous awards will give prizes to any plausible candidate who promises to turn up. And their sheer proliferation presents the danger of honour overload. It sometimes seems pointless trying to convince a weary editor that a prize truly warrants the column inches. Some eventually succeed in breaking through - for example, Beck's Futures, which profiles the younger-than-Turner generation of artists and has produced a staggering hit rate of controversial contenders. But the people at the printer manufacturers Lexmark must feel unfairly overlooked in their efforts to honour the best in European painting.
For the prizewinners, the good news is that sponsors recognise the ever-present danger of being ignored and are beefing up their gongs with ever-increasing pots of gold. Gordon's, the Turner's new sponsor, has raised the prize money from £20,000 to £25,000. And for the overwhelmed consumer of culture, there remains a benefit in the quality control that prizes offer, however rudimentary. I still like to own the Mercury-winning album and lament if I did not catch the winner of the Olivier Award for Best Play.
Those of us who report on the arts are driven demented at times by the relentless round of ceremonies. And yet, for every questionable result, there are others to be cheered. I would raise several glasses of cheap champagne at a silly black-tie ceremony in Leicester Square any time you ask me to if that is what it takes to confirm Bill Nighy as the star he manifestly is.
Louise Jury is arts correspondent of the Independent