Originally published on the Independent blog here
Outside of the art world, the Turner Prize seems to be a byword for work that is self-indulgent, ‘easy’ to produce and generally laughable. Most years it serves as an excuse for anyone who fancies it to make uninformed, unfunny jokes about Tracey Emin’s unmade bed. However, with a lack of such easy targets, could this year change the way people see the beleaguered competition?
In 2002, then Junior Culture Minister Kim Howells left a note on the visitor’s board at the gallery which described the collective work as “cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit,” adding that “if this is the best British artists can produce then British art is lost”.
What is it about the Turner Prize that drove even a politician, well-practised in the art of concealing their true opinion at all costs, to this kind of furious outburst? Come to think of it, why is modern theatre or dance not derided in this way? You don’t hear someone coming out of the Laban and saying; “They call that dance? I could just flail my arms around wildly for half an hour and it’d be better than that”. Conversely, the Turner Prize even has its very own parody website, the Turnip Prize.
With the bookies favourite Paul Noble populating his landscape drawings with a series of perfectly formed turds, anyone saying that the Turner Prize isn’t funny would be lying. Like most years since the competition began in 1984, humour is easy to find amongst this year’s entries – but there’s a difference between laughter and ridicule. I followed two teenage boys around the Tate Modern last week and listened with a smile as they derided every piece in turn. “I could have made that!” “How is that art?” (as you can see, they covered all the classics). But with such a distaste for modern art, why were they at the Tate Modern? I don’t like red wine but I wouldn’t go to the effort of visiting a vineyard just so I could make my feelings known.
Most of these would-be critics don’t feel strongly about who wins or loses, it’s more a general idea that it’s all rubbish and that the prize’s mere existence is an affront to polite society. Of course some people will prefer more traditional work but contemporary art hasn’t made older art go away, the last time I checked the National Gallery was still going strong. The Turner Prize doesn’t claim to be an all-encompassing representation of British art, so why the hatred? Conceptual pieces are often labelled ‘art for art’s sake’ but is this not criticism for criticism’s sake?
This year’s nominated works are many things: funny, absurd, skilful and moving to name but a few. They’re also the least outwardly ‘conceptual’ of recent years. There is no repeat of Martin Creed’s The Lights Turning on and Off (2001) which in case you hadn’t guessed did exactly what it said on the tin, prompting artist Jacqueline Creed to pelt the piece with eggs in anger. It seems that the thing that most annoys the British public is work that seems to have required little effort compared to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This year’s artists also have a slightly more conventional body of work, though not that conventional, there are still grown adults dressed as clowns.
Nominee Luke Fowler has produced a 90-minute film about schizophrenia and controversial psychiatrist RD Laing which has an almost journalistic sensibility to it, featuring fascinating archive footage and interview material from Janet Street-Porter amongst others. While Elizabeth Price’s video dramatisation of a fire at a Manchester branch of Woolworths in 1979 has been painstakingly thought out and has a genuinely frightening effect on the viewer.
Although the cruder elements of Paul Noble’s architectural drawings may not delight all viewers, the artist’s technical skill is obvious. Spartacus Chetwynd’s performance pieces – involving colourful collaged sets, costumed actors who usher the audience around and a giant blow-up slide – are most likely to become victim of the negative conceptual art stereotype. The word ‘nonconformists’ written large on the wall of the installation, with an arrow pointing to its entrance does little to help the situation. But, of course, that’s just my opinion.
Love it or hate it, it’s the one event in the art calendar that really gets people talking about art. I can think of few other exhibitions that would attract comments such as “I [HEART] PAUL NOBLE” and “If you don’t give it to Spartacus, you are stupid” on the comments wall. And yes, there were a few Kim Howells-esque entries too. It would be impossible for someone to like every piece of work that has ever been submitted for the Turner prize but artists must be judged on their merits rather than dismissed by association.
The reception of this year’s Turner Prize will reveal just how much of Britain’s perception of modern art is based on uninformed stereotypes. In terms of press coverage, constructive criticism has outweighed blanket negativity so far, although one of the contenders has been dubbed a ‘beardy weirdy’, so perhaps a final judgement is best reserved until after the winner is announced on December 3.