Tai Shani, Turner Prize 2019, courtesy Turner Contemporary and the artist. Photograph by David Levene
Artillery Row

Cancel the Turner

It looks like it was made by artists who don’t like art and chosen by judges who don’t either

Today the 2019 Turner Prize has been awarded to all of the nominees. I wish I was making this up for the purposes of satire, but I’m not. The four nominees urged the judges to award it to them all as they wanted to make a “collective statement”. Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Tai Shani and Oscar Murillo took this brave step because there is “already so much that divides and isolates people and communities”. We can only but admire the courage of the judges in agreeing to their request. That’s Boris and all the bad things told.

I offer my congratulations and a suggestion: make it historic by making it the last Turner Prize.

The Turner Prize has become a national joke. Founded in 1984 in an attempt to increase awareness of new art, the exhibition at the Tate Gallery usually featured four nominees. These included popular veterans and newcomers. Established artists such as Howard Hodgkin and Lucian Freud were nominees and Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread were helped into being prominent, mainstream figures by their appearances. In its early 90s heyday it could be genuinely exciting and was a major cultural event. In that way only things which are truly speaking to the classes and the masses simultaneously can be: like so much, you know it when you see it. The “non-art public”, for want of a better term, had strong opinions about the art on display. There was serious discussion about Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993), the cast of the interior of a demolished working-class house in East London. Was it a powerful statement about social housing, gentrification and memory or was it pretentious nonsense? It was hotly debated in newspapers, television studios, pubs and art schools at the time, but those days are decades past.

The only difference between the gender ratios of Tate’s annual reports and Pravda’s bulletins of the USSR’s Five Year Plan is that tractor production might have some conceivable value

Some nominees for early prizes – whether or not one liked their art – were significant artistic figures. Howard Hodgkin, Richard Long, Anish Kapoor, Sean Scully, Anthony Gormley and Glenn Brown were recognisable figures who made distinctive art. Recent winners have produced little that was notable and nothing that was serious. Artists today have their art made by assistants, flit between mediums and eschew personal style. Post-Modernist aversion to object-as-art (and preference for idea-as-art) means artists are deterred from making beautiful objects. Looking at recent Turner Prize art one must entertain the suspicion that it was made by artists who don’t like art chosen by judges who don’t enjoy art promoted by administrators who don’t believe in art. Nothing better demonstrates the contempt that the cultural elite have for hoi polloi than the Turner Prize’s annual parade of non-entities with their finger-wagging sanctimony, mournful self-indulgence and chilly pseudo-intellectualism.

Without checking, can you name as many as five winners of the UK’s most prestigious art award from the last decade? No, Grayson Perry won in 2003. How about Duncan Campbell, Susan Phillipsz, Laure Prouvost and Leah Wilcox? Can you describe their art? Do you think that people will be talking about their art in twenty years’ time, let alone fifty? How many of you realised that I made up that last name? The courageous foursome who ‘won’ this year are destined for similar illustrious obscurity; their solo exhibitions at Arts Council-funded venues will take place without the risk of troubling public consciousness.

Tate should hire a billboard on which it could post its virtue statistics – “3 women, 1 homosexual”

Considering the art and its presentation gives the impression it was chosen to allow selectors to flaunt their progressiveness. Any aesthetic criteria have long been abandoned in favour of political “relevance” and “representation” of women and minorities. Every year there is distasteful discussion about artist skin colour, gender or sexual orientation. Tate should hire a billboard on which it could post its virtue statistics – “3 women, 1 homosexual” – like some feeble lower-league football score. Two thirds of prize winners from 2009 to 2018 were women. Tate is very aware of such figures. Indeed, statistics regarding representation are the only way of judging art if one is a supporter of politically directed art. Once evaluation of art is detached from skill, narration and traditional markers of ability, it is a worthy statistic. The only difference between the gender ratios of Tate’s annual reports and Pravda’s bulletins of the USSR’s Five Year Plan is that tractor production might have some conceivable value.  

One feature of left-liberal cosmopolitanism is aversion to boundaries. For the boundary-averse leftist, not only nationalism but even nationality is problematic. Ostensibly, the Turner Prize is a British art prize. According to Tate: “The Turner Prize is awarded to a British artist. ‘British’ can mean an artist working primarily in Britain or an artist born in Britain working globally.” Non-British nationals have been nominated and won the prize. In effect, it is now a prize for any artist who has spent time in Britain. Recent nominations display increasing emphasis on foreign-born and foreign-based artists (one 2019 nominee “lives and works in Beirut”). The art of Prouvost (2013 winner) has been described as “wonderfully, unmistakably French” by judge Declan Long. Prouvost studied in London. Turner Prize selections are driven by the internationalist left-liberal outlook of the cultural elite. Long asserts, “enlivening pluralism surely helps to make this a ‘British’ prize”. According to our cultural arbiters, it is non-Britishness that is a defining quality of British art – it would be a rather Zen concept if it wasn’t so sinister. The selection committee seeks out artists in order to demonstrate ostentatious xenophilia and neophilia. A selection without video, performance, installation, multi-media or sound art would not be a true Turner Prize.

It is mark of purity to spurn commercially successful artists

That is before we get to politics proper. 

Consider the rise of collectives. Three times collectives have been nominated for the Turner Prize, winning once. This preference for group action springs from the left-liberal aversion to the great-man view of humanity. For leftists there are no great men, only individuals who have had greater access to resources, education and opportunities than others. Generations of university graduates schooled in Marxism and Critical Theory nurture resentment. When it comes to artistic collectives – often with barely known and changing personnel – leftists see these as a more fitting reflection of humanity’s collective capacity than the despised “star system” of individual artists. A word that never crosses a Marxist’s lips is “genius” – at least not without irony or hostility. Furthermore, it is mark of purity to spurn commercially successful artists and instead laud artists who spend their careers moving from Arts Council grant to public commission to British Council-funded retrospective. 

We won’t even – here, today – go  into the long, murky and very well-documented history of cronyism regarding Turner Prize judges, nominees and the Tate itself.

The Turner Prize was established as an entertaining, superficial but worthwhile method of promoting contemporary art. Today it is part of a campaign to erase the idea that art made in Britain by British artists may have qualities worthy of celebrating precisely because of where it came from. According to its judges, there are no boundaries between art and politics, between individual and collective, between Britain and the rest of the world. The whole enterprise is now hostile to the public which seeks pleasure. The didactic expositions of totalitarian regimes were never more joyless than the Turner Prize of late. 

What can anyone say about art that has been made deliberately to have no visual qualities at all? 

The prize is limping towards overdue cancellation. New art venues and access to art via the internet has rendered irrelevant the single prize broadcast on terrestrial television to promote contemporary art. Attendance to the exhibition in London is stagnant. Recently, the exhibition has visited cities outside London to boost attendance and press coverage. The press is losing interest. No reporters or readers (and few art critics) has heard of these artists before nomination; apart from diverting stunts (“Did you hear about that artist who turned a shed into a boat?”) there is nothing to write about. After all, as arts journalist Laura Gascoigne puts it, “Novelty acts don’t come along every year”. What can anyone say about art that has been made deliberately to have not only no aesthetic qualities but no visual qualities at all? 

The Turner Prize has become political theatre, a waste of public money and an insult to Britain’s talented artists and curious art lovers. Put this wretched laughing stock out of its misery.

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