An onlooker admires artwork by Claudette Johnson at National Portrait Gallery. Picture credit Alishia Abodunde/Getty Images
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The Turner Prize’s identity crisis

The art establishment has revived competent drawing in spite of itself

Stop me if you’ve heard it before. A Filipino, a Romani Gypsy, a Sikh and a Black woman walk into the Tate Modern … Actually, it’s no joke. This is the 2024 Turner Prize shortlist. That all of this year’s contenders are British minorities is not unusual. Last year’s shortlist consisted of two gay men, a Black woman and a woman who said, “I’m Jewish and I’m Chinese. I’m also neither…”. The year before that? Three women and a drag queen who identified as one competed for the £25,000 prize.

Identity being the main consideration of the Turner Prize judges is a fair reflection of the wider art world’s current obsession. This year’s “globally inclusive lineup” is for The Guardian’s Adrian Searle, “one in the eye for petty nationalists”. Leave aside the implication that nationalism afflicts only white Britons, the notion that BNP members are aware of the Turner Prize’s existence, let alone this year’s shortlist, is wonderfully naive. In truth, most people forgot about the Turner Prize years ago. The competition is like the Millenium Dome or Philip Schofield — a quaint and increasingly weird relic of the 1990s.

It used to be easy. Just pick a few barking mad exhibitions and let the tabloid headlines do the rest. Reviewing its thirty-four winners today is like finding your old collection of singles. You strain your ears, searching in vain for the artistry, passion and truth so vividly remembered. Gradually you realise how much work was done by youthful enthusiasm and clever marketing. Some Turner decisions that once seemed merely stupid now look, with the passage of time, actually insane. Imagine — Lucian Freud was nominated in 1988 but didn’t win! 

It’s not that the Turner hasn’t changed with the times — on the contrary, it follows fashions assiduously. It’s that all of its fads were the dying gasps of Modernism. In the Turner’s first decade, the type of large abstract sculpture that you find outside banks got the gongs. Tony Craig. Richard Deacon, Richard Long and Grenville Davey were working in a style that was avant garde in the 1950s but was by the late 80s solidly mainstream. 

In 1991, the competition rules changed to exclude artists over 50. So began the Britpop era dominated by what Culture Minister Kim Howells called, “conceptual bullshit”. Rachel Whiteread’s house in a house, Damien Hirst’s pickled sheep, Mark Wallinger’s teddy bear costume. It was all cheerfully bonkers but, even before the century ended, Cool Britannia was running on fumes.

Rather than examining first principles — the Turner turned to technology. Video artists won in 1996, 1997 and 1999 and a photographer in 2000. 2002 winner Keith Tyson was credulously described by The Guardian as the inventor of “the Art Machine, a computerised device, which with the aid of various flowcharts, gave precise instructions for the creation of works of art.”

Next, the Turner fell back on that old standby, titillation. Tracey Emin got the orgy started with her bed. In 2002 Fiona Banner took an academic approach in Arsewoman in Wonderland, describing a porno in a way that I feel compelled to describe as blow by blow. In 2003 the Chapman Brother cast blow-up sex dolls in bronze. They lost out to cross-dressing Grayson Perry who jazzed up the staid word of pottery with “sadomasochistic sex scenes”. Presenting the award that year was a pioneer at shock tactics. Madonna expressed her approval clearly, “Right on, motherfuckers!” 

The Turner’s ritualistic pursuit of novelty inevitably began to look desperate

But even pop singers discover that sex eventually gets a bit embarrassing.  Like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, the Turner’s ritualistic pursuit of novelty inevitably began to look desperate. Even the protests became fixtures. From 2000, the “Stuckists” dressed as clowns, chucked eggs at exhibitions and mocked Charles Saatchi. After a few years, even they stopped showing up. 

If titillation is the second last refuge of an aging art prize, the last is student politics. The luvvie love affair with Blairism ended with Iraq’s invasion. Jeremy Deller won in 2004 for a documentary about George W. Bush’s hometown. Right on indeed. 

This holier-than-thou schtick was hard to sustain as the prize found itself immersed in scandals. At the 2005 awards banquet, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota launched into a Castro-esq harangue defending his decision to buy paintings of monkeys for £750,000. These were the work of Chris Ofili, the 1998 Turner winner who earned the eternal gratitude of Daily Telegraph editorialists by painting with elephant dung. Ofili was also a Tate trustee board member of the Tate when the Tate, a publicly-funded museum, bought his paintings. 

Christopher McCall QC considered it a breach of charity law. The deal was brokered by Victoria Miro — one of London’s blue-chip dealers who along with Jay Jopling, Maureen Paley and Lisson Gallery represent practically all the artists shortlisted for the Turner.  Charles Thomson explained the Tate/Turner magic circle in The Observer, “the director chooses the trustees, and the trustees are then responsible for reappointing the director. The director then buys the trustees’ work.” 

Cartel is a harsh word. It applies. 

With most jurors working in the art world, some conflicts of interest are probably inevitable. In an attempt to make things at least look more transparent, the journalist Lynn Barber was invited to be a judge in 2006. On paper, Barber looked like a soft touch. She was a Turner Prize fan. She actually liked, “the whole vulgar, crowd-pulling, bookie-pleasing razzmatazz of it.”  But seeing the sausage made was disillusioning. It left her wondering, “is it all a fix?”, a question many asked when the jurors’ emails were made public.

It is unfair, in a way, to single out the Turner Prize for censure. That its legacy is soiled and threadbare reflect a wider malaise. The terrible secret, whispered late at night in the strongest vaults of Sotheby’s and Christies, is that award-winning contemporary art loses value at about the same rate as yesterday’s sushi. 

Today only curmudgeons like me pay attention as the Turner suffers its extended midlife crises. One result of its greying hairs and arthritic limbs was that artists over 50 became eligible again in 2017. Another is that the 24-hr party people have become puritans who go to bed early. 

Johnson does just what the great British portraitists of previous generations … did so well

But even a stopped clock is right occasionally. It is a happy irony that this year’s judges, concerned only with signalling virtue, have unintentionally shortlisted a deserving artist. Yes, Claudette Johnson is a black woman but she also belongs to an even more embattled minority: figurative artist. Painting and drawing her contemporaries with sympathy and skill, Johnson does just what the great British portraitists of previous generations — Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and Stanley Spenser and Lucien Freud — did so well. 

She has nothing in common with Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin bar perhaps a passport. One former Turner nominee to whom Johnson could be intelligently compared is Barbera Walker. Walker was in contention last year. At 60, she is five years younger than Johnson. Both of these artists come from African-Caribbean backgrounds and grew up in the Midlands. Both often work on a large scale. Both paint black people, mostly women. “Issues of belonging, power, visibility, and representation” are common concerns. They have exhibited together.  

What are the odds? You wait decades for Figurative Art to make a comeback and here comes one gifted draftswoman after another. This is a fortunate accident and no more. Most judges are either oblivious or contemptuous towards the tradition in which these women work. Most critics see their nomination entirely in terms of Identity Politics. Lubaina Himid, another Black female artist, won in 2017. But don’t expect anyone to point out that Himid’s work is crude next to Johnson’s or Walker’s. Most contemporary critics and alas many artists are oblivious to such basic technicalities. Again, don’t expect reviewers to notice that Johnson and Walker have considerably more in common with the figurative painter Stuart Pearson-Wright (a white boy who’d never get within a sniff of the Turner) than they do with the black conceptual artist who won in 1999, Steve McQueen.

Competent drawing is back despite the prejudice of the contemporary art establishment. Why? Well, it turns out that representative art is quite good at, well, representation. And Conceptual art, while it keeps a great many curators busy, is a rotten way to communicate concepts. 

Alex Farquharson, Tate Britain’s current director and jury chair said, “This year’s shortlisted artists can be broadly characterised as exploring questions of identity, autobiography, community…” Quite so. To actually see such concepts visualised, look no further than Johnson’s drawing of abolitionist Sarah Parker Remond. Pickled sheep require explanation; Johnson’s drawing speaks for itself.  

The Stuckists famous objection to the Turner Prize, back when they cared, was “the only artist who wouldn’t be in danger of winning the Turner Prize is Turner”. Maybe that’s about to change. Like it or not, the Turner Prize’s authority has not altogether vanished — Claudette Johnson winning would ensure that it continues and grows. Those who say the Turner is only for Conceptual Art are stuck in the past. Before year’s end, we’ll know if the Turner is too. 

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