Awards are great – recognition descending from on high to give you a firm slap on the back. An award tells people that you’re one of those rare artists doing good, making work and being successful. If it comes with cash you can even pay rent this month. The glamour of the ceremony, the snacks, the champagne… rubbing body parts with the movers and shakers of the industry.
I got my first award in 2013… what a day. I was elated. I was free with my high-fives. It felt good. I’ve gotten a couple more since then and it’s a thrill every time. Getting an award is almost enough to quiet that niggling voice in the back of my head… that maybe… possibly… awards aren’t great. That awards may actually be the opposite of great. That awards maybe actually be terrible.
Awards are inarguably good for two entities: The organisation giving the award, and the individual receiving it.
We’re in an incredibly unequal society. Awards can function to pick out talent and push it forward, forming part of a virtuous circle (the opposite of the more famous vicious circle – a virtuous circle is where good things lead to more good things, a positive positive feedback loop). This can be a force for social change, combatting the inequalities of the system, but only if that is a conscious goal of the award. We see this in targeted awards for basically everyone who isn’t a white heterosexual male, they are addressing persisting historical equality.
In these virtuous circles sit not just awards but many opportunities that we want to believe are based solely on merit. But the rewards are disproportionate, the person who came second rarely gets any prizes and certainly not the publicity that leads to more offers of work. One instance of this is fine, it’s the circle we should worry about. Let’s take a look at a kid who went to a school with good drama program, they audition against others who have passion but no training. They get into a top tier university with opportunities for bursaries and residences. Their peers are mostly like them, passionate with a talent that has already been nurtured. Competition and collaboration drives them further. By the end of their university career they take a production to the Student Festival at the National Arts Festival. They win some categories like best production, best writer, best director. Part of their prize is to present a new show at the next NAF. Focus is on them and they get an Ovation award. The next year it’s the Arena program. A virtuous circle.
How far back do you trace a person’s success? Is my career dependent on growing up in a house filled with books? Or unconsciously absorbing the cues all around me that told me I could do whatever I wanted? Is it being brought up in the language of the global hegemony?
There are advantages being handed out all around us all the time. I believe that talent, intelligence, and passion are distributed equally across race and class. But that is not the story that the advantages handed out tell. That story is that advantage leads to advantage.
Awards and opportunities need to be open to questioning. In 2014 we saw outcry on social media about the all-male Standard Bank Young Artists for 2015 and we saw people questioning the selection process of the Cape Town Fringe. People were questioning the gatekeepers about their decisions from Maynardville to the NAF. And that’s important. Awards and opportunities innately stratify industries so we need to be aware of their effects and cautious about how they’re handled. Above all else awards need to be proportional to the achievements (and opportunities to the potential) not only of the recipient, but of their peers. Setting one person above another is a great responsibility and who ever does so must be able to answer for it.
Perhaps the best way awards contribute to change is in their fallibility – the value of high profile awards like the Grammies, the Oscars, or the Standard Bank Young Artists is that we see how untransformed we are clearly. It is an opportunity for us all to address it.