Art Criticism

The Turner Prize 2007
Tate Britain

With its emphasis on the “young” and the “fresh”, the Turner Prize has pandered to disposable celebrity culture. It’s time to change the rules

Turner Prize 1984 - Malcolm Morley
Turner Prize 1984 – Malcolm Morley

Being asked to write about the Turner Prize is a bit of a poisoned chalice. To criticise Britain’s biggest prize for modern art is to risk aligning one self with the Daily Mail’s “call that art?” brigade. To defend it, on the other hand, is to endorse the shallow theoretical tosh that is served up to give the prize its supposed gravitas. With the short list for 2007 due to be announced in the coming week, it’s that time of year again, and the media machine is cranking into action. The Turner has become a triumph of publicity over substance; like contestants in the Big Brother house, it has become famous simply for being famous.

This year, the awards ceremony will be held in Liverpool for the first time, to coincide with the city’s European Capital of Culture celebrations for 2007-2008. It is hoped that the new location will give the tired prize a fillip by association. Perhaps the idea is also to escape the criticism that the Turner is stitched up by the metropolitan art mafia – though one suspects that they will all simply be despatched from the capital to Lime Street, with the principle of public input remaining just a charade. Being a judge has its own problems: last year, the journalist and jury member Lynn Barber revealed her misgivings about both the quality of the work and the judging process. And when that high priest of art criticism, the writer Robert Hughes, was asked if he would ever consider being a judge, his succinct “I’d rather fuck newts underwater” said all there was to say about his attitude to the prize (it might also have marked him out as a latecomer to the realms of performance art).

Turner Prize 1993 - Rachel Whiteread
Turner Prize 1993 – Rachel Whiteread

The problem with the Turner is embedded in its rules, which state that no artist can be nominated twice, and that the prize must go to an artist under the age of 50. According to the website for Channel 4, the former sponsor of the prize, the main criteria for judging are “freshness and originality”. This raises the question: Are freshness and originality virtues in their own right? Or do they need to be put to some good use? And why only artists under 50? Do the brain cells rot and ideas stop flowing on one’s 50th birthday? The truth is that the Turner Prize, and conceptual art in general, have become means for getting the visual arts into the news pages. Elephant dung, transvestite potters in pretty party dresses and sheds that turn into boats provide good copy for journalists and, therefore, encourage sponsors and ensure continued funding for the organiser of the prize, the Tate.

As such, judges have been hand-picked because they won’t rock the boat or challenge the bland consensus (the choice of Barber being an accidental exception). Looking back over some of the winners, who include Martin Creed, Simon Starling, Gillian Wearing and Steve McQueen, one wonders if this rather dreary list really represents the best British art of its day. Press, critics and curators all scurry to endorse each winner, fearful of pointing out that the new emperor is really stark bollock-naked.

Turner Prize 2003 - Grayson Perry
Turner Prize 2003 – Grayson Perry

The problem is that the whole circus endorses what Hughes calls “the modernist myth of continual renewal. You can’t just expect terrific artists to pop up on cue.” Most years, the Turner offers the mediocre masquerading as the significant. Which is not to say that there have been no serious winners in the past – Howard Hodgkin and Rachel Whiteread are two notable exceptions – but since the inception of the competition in 1984, it has lost aesthetic and philosophical credence by pandering to the next morning’s headlines.

Its most vociferous critics, the rather silly Stuckists, have cornered the market in Turner criticism. I have some sympathy with their call for “renewal of spiritual values for art, culture and society to replace the emptiness of postmodernism”. It’s just a shame that the alternative they offer is second-rate figurative painting. Such critics have their eyes tightly shut to any creative possibilities offered by the best conceptual art. The argument should not be about form, or the merits of painting versus conceptual art. Good art, real art, can be any of these things. What matters is passion and content, and the ideas behind much conceptual art are all too often intellectually half-baked.

In a world where global warming, the arming of new nuclear powers and the mass migration of economically impoverished cultures dominate the agenda, cynicism and indifference are no longer options. Somewhere in the 1980s, art lost its high-minded postwar moral agenda. It grew tired of seriousness. Feeling was too complicated and too demanding; being famous, as Andy Warhol testified, was so much more hip. With our senses dulled, the only art that could touch us was art that could shock, so along came portraits of Myra Hindley, sharks in formaldehyde and unmade beds. But shock has a narrow emotional range. Human society and the human psyche are diverse and complex; if art is to continue to have any meaning, it has to reflect this.

As long ago as 1966, the late Susan Sontag set out her stall in Against Interpretation, stating what she considered to be the function and purpose of art. She wrote that “what is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more … In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” We have had decades of cynicism and irony, but art cannot survive on a diet of celebrity and solipsism. The time has come for a new seriousness.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007
Images maye subject to copyright

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