The Trouble With The Turner Prize – Edward Lucie-Smith




The Turner Prize continues to be in trouble. When it first appeared, the competition had an easily comprehensible aim: to single out the best new artists living and working in Britain and present their work to an appreciative public, both British and international. This worked pretty well till, say, the 1990s – the heyday of the so-called YBAs [Young British Artists], of whom Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin are now pretty well the only survivors.

In those now semi-distant days, there was no doubt that the Turner was meant to be a competition

Hirst, who won in 1995, with a piece entitled Mother and Child Divided, featuring a cow and her calf, each neatly sliced in half and displayed in tanks filled with formaldehyde, continues to be a reasonably big deal internationally, though recent works, compositions made from large numbers of dead butterflies, bred for the purpose, have tended to arouse a certain queasiness. Emin is now a Royal Academician, perhaps less well known than Hirst internationally, but ensconced in the very heart of the British establishment. Paradoxically, she is also one of those who was shortlisted for the prize but didn’t win it. With her installation piece My Bed, she garnered publicity which quite eclipsed all the other competitors in the year in which she figured. In those now semi-distant days, there was no doubt that the Turner was meant to be a competition – ‘the devil takes the hindmost’ was the motto that competitors and commentators happily subscribed to.

Today things have changed. The prize exhibition now oscillates between London and other UK cities. The upcoming Turner Prize exhibition, due to open at the Herbert Gallery in Coventry on 29 September, consists not of work by individual artists but by a number of artists groups. This is not the first time that groups, rather than individual artists, have figured in the shortlist. It is, however, the first time that groups have completely dominated it. None of these groups is already well known. One group, at least, has promptly issued a public statement, which indicates the unease they feel about being nominated. Very often, they seem more concerned with the idea of promoting social change than with the notion of producing anything of aesthetic value.

The director of the event, Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain and chair of the judges, defends the direction taken by the selectors thus: “One of the great joys of the Turner is the way it captures and reflects the mood of the moment in contemporary British art, after a year of lockdowns when very few artists have been able to exhibit publicly, the jury has selected five outstanding collectives whose work has not only continued through the pandemic but become even more relevant as a result.”

To specify: there is Array Collective, a Northern Irish group leading a fight for ‘reproduction tights against anti-gay legislation’, one called Gentle/Radical from Cardiff, which ‘created physical and visual spaces for community-centred cultural conversation during COVID, and a dup called Cooking Sections, based in London, cited for a project called CLIMAVORE, “which turns an underwater dining table into a low-tide community eating rare for residents of Scotland’s Isle of Skye.” Also a ‘neurodiverse’ collective ‘of artists and makers’ called Project Art Works, from Hastings in East Sussex, which has made it possible for passersby to see artworks through the windows of the gallery Hastings Contemporary, closed during the pandemic.

Finally, there is the group mentioned above, the one which complained that they didn’t know why they had been nominated. It is a London-based collective e called BOSS formed in 2018, ‘which works across art, sound, and activism. It describes itself as being QTIBOC – that is for ‘queer, trans and intersex black and people of colour’.

The prize-winner – the first prize is worth £25,000, and there are consolation prizes for the losers – will be announced at an award ceremony to be held at Coventry Cathedral (no less) on 1 December. It seems sure to be one of the biggest virtue-signally events of the current year. That is if all the contests don’t simply agree amongst themselves to share the money, which is what happened at the most recent Turner Prize, held in Margate in 2019, just before the pandemic hit.

A problem with the Turner Prize – one of several – is that it has run out of steam. We no longer really have anything in Britain that looks like an avant-garde, in the traditional sense. Late 19th century avant-gardes, from the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists onwards, till well into the 20th century, were always elitist. They defined themselves through their power to upset society, to overturn apple-carts. They were not usually concerned with expressing their own sense of virtue. Western art, in any case, has a long tradition of mischievous bad boys. Nobody would think of describing Caravaggio as a paragon of social and moral virtue, but there’s also no doubt about his importance in the story of post-Renaissance art. No one could describe Picasso, or for that matter, a lesser figure such as Lucian Freud, as moral exemplars. However, the quality of their artistic contribution is not in doubt. The same can be said, though with less certainty perhaps, about Jean-Michel Basquiat, that hero from the 1980s, currently a hero in today’s auction rooms but also safely deceased.

The competitors for this year’s Turner Prize belong to a different kind of moral universe. The powers-that-be in the contemporary art world, and its would=be arbiters, are not, as in the comparatively recent past, individuals. They tend to be, as is demonstrated by this upcoming show, official institutions and individuals who are part of those institutions. The instinct here is to be populist and self-consciously ‘democratic’. The democratic impulse, however, has its limits. While we know who the chairman of the judges is – no less than the director of Tate Britain, whose duty it is to reach the broadest possible public with art that is officially designated as virtuously contemporary. Nearly all the other members of the jury for this event are part of the official spectrum.

Kim McAleese, for example, is the director of a gallery and studio complex in Digbeth, Birmingham. “We are a welcoming organisation,” they announce, “bringing the public closer to art and artists… We support learning, creating contexts for art and life to intersect. Our workplaces emphasise on the importance of collaboration and long term artistic research. Many of these projects that place outside of the gallery, across the city of Birmingham through our Collaborative Programme.”

To put it shortly – this event belongs to the world of ‘Do as Nanny tells you’. It seems unlikely that great art has ever been made in this way.

To make an irreverent comparison, the world represented here has a certain resemblance to that of the popular television programme Strictly Come Dancing. But not in a good way. In Strictly, celeb/amateurs are paired with professionals. During the sequence of transmissions, we see these amateurs gradually improve, and at the same time both they and we hear the comments of a professional jury. The technical framework is clear. It is easy for the audience, as well as the actual jury, to distinguish between what works and what doesn’t. At the end of the series, some contestants having been eliminated by the television audience are allowed to have their say. This is democratic entertainment. The Turner Prize, in its new form, really isn’t. It is, instead, pretend-democratic. This means, in turn, that the kind of art it features, whatever its social merits, are unlikely to last beyond the span of the exhibition itself.

Top Photo: Cooking Sections, Art Now: Salmon, A Red Herring, Tate Britain, 2020 Photo © Tate (Lucy Dawkins) 2020 Turner Prize 2021

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