The problem with the YAYA award


Something that needed to get off my chest: I'm afraid realpolitik has compromised the integrity and worth of the Young Artist of the Year Award (which I'll call YAYA).

The rules make it clear that an individual has to be nominated by a member of the public in order to be eligible for YAYA. Presumably, I'd imagine this is to ensure that the nominee's qualification and merit for the award has earned the genuine (and spontaneous) confidence of at least one other party

Artists are waiting their turn to be called.

Some are jumping queue.


In other words, YAYA is not (at least according to the brief laid out by the NAC) intended to be an open grant (although specifying what you plan to do with the award money is presumably part of the selection process). It's not a bursary you apply and compete for on a level playing field with all contenders. You have to be invited (by someone else) to play. It's supposed to endorse a certain consensus about the reputation and quality of your work.

But it's engendered something of an entitlement mentality among artists of a certain age and output, who appear to be waiting their turn to be "called to the bar" by their associates. Some are jumping queue where they can.

In recent years including this one, there have been open solicitations for nominations (at least, in one particular field) by would-be YAYA receipients.

At least two recent YAYA receipients had actively solicited -- and successfully received -- nominations and endorsements from well-placed individuals they know. Their motives vary: from needing the money to political reasons such as the desire for some sort of formal endorsement and validation.

Pardon me for being a prude but I can't help thinking there is something fundamentally flawed with this whole business. The YAYA is at least ostensibly intended to be a recognition of artistic merit, not a popularity contest or god-help-us a US style presidential candidacy race.

Surely there can be no quarrel with those candidates and awardees who were approached by admirers who of their own accord wanted to nominate them. Nor with those truly deserving talents who have rightly won the award in recent years (and whose artistic impact have been clearly visible, with or without the endorsement of YAYA).

The issue is with all those who have come to believe that the only way to win in the system is not to trust the meritocratic process, but to circumvent or shortcircuit the rules, in spirit if not in letter. Not to mention the quiet complicity (or at best, indifferent negligence) of all involved.

It's not even all hubris either: the appalling thing is that some of these self-help YAYA candidates admit that they would probably not have gotten the award or ever been nominated on their own merit alone, especially relative to others at work in their field. There is a certain moral fatigue and earnest fatalism at work, a "c'est la vie" ethic which I cannot help translating as nothing but base cynicism. And this cynicism extends to the bystanders: any attempt to point out the problem is regarded as sour grapes rather than an attempt to correct an appalling loophole in the system.

I guess I once held and still want to hold the system and the award in high regard as a medal of honour, a badge of merit, to be aspired to. But my impression of the YAYA has been deeply sullied. Sadly, the general public and many officials are still largely unaware (or even apathetic) to the mechanics of the system, and continue to look solely at the prestige and influence the YAYA bestows; the doors it opens, rather than its now-questionable credibility.

In the meantime, other possibly more deserving but less populist (or thick-skinned) practitioners of the art(s) may well go unregarded. But that's less of a tragedy (fame is after all a fickle mistress) as the dilution (or worse, ignorance) of artistic standards implied by the endorsement of less-deserving but louder voices in the field. Who are we recognising as our most treasured artists?

If the Award is no longer an impartial yardstick of merit, why not call a spade a spade: turn it into a grant?

Presumably the question must go to the body of work that has been produced. If all we have anywhere are artists of a given quality, mediocre or middling or marvellous as the case might be -- then so be it. But if patently better candidates exist but are disregarded for reasons as banal as publicity and cronyism, then there is cause for great concern. Surely the Arts Council has the stated imperative to counter-nominate candidates (assuming it has an intimate appreciation of the the artistic fields it purports to oversee).

Without the basic credibility of fair and due meritocratic process, the YAYA dishonours all its receipients, more and less deserving tarred alike. Human nature being what it is, one doubts that the appeal to a loftier ethic would prevail upon those bent on taking the easy path to knighthood. Nor is there a pragmatic means of ferreting out self-solicited nominations.

One possible solution: if the Award is no longer in essence an impartial yardstick, why not call a spade a spade?

In other words, publicly do away with the myth that the YAYA is an award meant to reliably and objectively gauge prevailing artistic merit. Call it the Young Artist Excellence Grant, open the floor to all who wish to have a go at it, and let the same rigid standards apply to whoever you choose to receive the grant. This is what already happens with the NAC's many grants, bursary and scholarship schemes. Indeed, a reputable, open-competition grant such as the Guggenheim fellowship in the US often carries as much if not more weight than the odd or arbitrary award.

The key difference from the existing YAYA structure: it would level out the playing field between those who want and know how to increase their chances of winning the award (regardless of merit) and those who deserve it (but have not been nominated). And it would eliminate the moral hazard of having to quietly nudge a nomination out of an obliging mate. Let those who feel they need and deserve the grant openly apply for it themselves. And may the best artist win.

This would make explicit the de facto way in which the system currently operates. It may even go some way to bury the impression that our current YAYA artists aren't truly the best we have in the business, but rather merely the most publicity-savvy.

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl