Turner Prize Rubbish

Update posted December 7th, 2015

Related article: The Turner Prize 2016 phase of the pulse of what's happening.

The Turner Prize is shittier than ever this year: a pathetic, corrupt charade. Two of the entries for 2015 are not even artistic unless you go along with Alistair Hudson, Director of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, who's nihilistic idea is that anything can be art (including a council housing estate or, presumably, anything some 'art establishment' insider says is art). The other two entries are the usual installation-type rubbish in the vein that a scrap of wood washed up on the sea shore is art or that something is art simply by being put in a gallery.

Surely, an artwork must be made, not found, and not made from objects but from raw material such as paint or marble or bronze where you start with nothing except the medium and use skill and judgement to produce something you can call your own. Draping fur coats over the back of chairs requires no skill or talent—just the arrogance of expecting others to appreciate it because you have made an artistic statement. Here's an artist's statement I saw recently (and this one is about painting):

My painting practice adopts a system of revisiting recurring continuities in the dialogues within painting and dialogues that form from painting.

I don't particularly blame Nicole Wermers (the perpetrator) or Bonnie Camplin who's own pile of rubbish is explained by such total bollocks as: 'myth-science of energy and consciousness research in which subjective experience is taken as the primary form of evidence'. The depressing idea that art can be anything comes from the Tate and the Turner Prize and people like Alistair Hudson and the other so-called judges who between them are taking the concept of art to rock bottom year-zero minus a few years more. You don't actually enter yourself anyway; you are chosen, which Assemble (another nominee) were surprised about and only agreed to go forward to benefit their project to regenerate derelict houses. At least their art, if that is the word for it, may be appreciated by someone outside the art establishment and that they won says something about the rest of it.

The Turner Prize is nothing to do with J.M.W. Turner, the famously gifted British painter (1775-1851). It was set up in 1984 to celebrate new developments in contemporary British art and his name was apparently chosen because he'd wanted to establish a prize for young artists (it is open only to people under 50).

Originally posted December 5th, 2007

Last week the 2007 Turner Prize was awarded to Mark Wallinger. The work that Wallinger submitted to the Turner Prize Exhibition at Tate Liverpool was a film of himself dressed up in a bear costume, wandering around at night in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. Apparently though, 'everyone agrees' that he really won the Turner Prize for another work: 'State Britain', a faithful replica of yet another 'work' by anti-war demonstrator Brian Haw. So why didn't Brian Haw get the prize?

It's because Brian Haw isn't an artist and his 'work' wasn't actually a piece of art. It was (before it was removed by the police) a collection of battered posters, placards, banners, flags, crosses, teddy bears, and images of war victims, all gathered together since 2001 outside the British parliament in protest at sanctions and the invasion of Iraq.

Turner Prize winner Mark Wallinger with 'State Britain'

In awarding the 2007 Turner Prize to Wallinger, the judges announced that his installation "demonstrates art's unique ability to engage with contemporary political issues" and managed to "communicate an unpalatable political truth." Quite why this should be so is unclear, as the piece wasn't on display at Liverpool (perhaps I've misunderstood the rules of the competition) and in any case it isn't art. Like another Turner Prize winner ("Brit Art" upstart Damien Hirst who won in 1995), Mark Wallinger is essentially a model-maker.

To say that art is unique as a means of engaging with contemporary issues is rubbish. Books, newspapers, television, and the internet do it all the time. And it was Brian Haw who engaged and "communicated an unpalatable political truth." The Tate simply used Wallinger's model to hi-jack someone else's message. The only good thing one might say about this stunt is that it drew more attention to the real thing.

Introducing the prizegiving, the Tate's Director, Sir Nicholas Serota, said words to the effect that the Turner Prize is the world's most important award for the visual arts. If that were true, the visual arts would be dead, which of course they are not. Unfortunately the word 'art' has come to mean anything we want it to and encompasses 'artistic statements' and other gimmicks that demonstrate little or no creativity or skill whatsoever. And to many of the galleries, dealers, critics, collectors, and other hangers-on who think of themselves as the art establishment, art is anything that makes them money.

Public expressions of outrage

The Tate Gallery (which now calls part of itself Tate Britain) receives many letters expressing outrage at the selection to be exhibited for each year's Turner Prize, a large number of which come from people who haven't seen the works they are complaining about. It's certainly true that seeing a work in the flesh can bring to life something that seems ludicrous when viewed on TV. A case in point is the work of Richard Long, the only artist to be shortlisted for the Prize four times and who finally won the award in 1989. Some time in the 1980's I saw for myself a large circle he made with muddy hand prints in the corner of a wall at the Tate, and I found it quite beautiful.

One of the most absurd Turner Prize awards occured in 1993 when Rachel Whiteread's winning entry was a concrete cast of the inside of a house with the outer walls removed. Titled 'House', it was thankfully destroyed the year after. A hideous monolith like this is considered a work of art (at least by some) only because the model-maker says it is. But from time to time, something worthwhile slips through to victory, as was the case with aforementioned Richard Long, and the painter Howard Hodgkin who won in 1985.

The Tate Gallery's pile of bricks

As an aside, the 'Pile of Bricks' is the popular name for some building materials the Tate Gallery bought from Carl Andre in 1972. Andre's so-called minimalist sculpture ('Equivalent VIII') consists of 120 firebricks placed on the floor in a rectangular formation. The Pile isn't always on display. It can be dismantled for storage, but each time it's put on display again the bricks aren't assembled in any particular order, so even if it was a work of art, it isn't really the work originally purchased. The Tate Gallery never recorded the order and orientation in which Andre first arranged them.

The Turner Prize is firmly associated with such 'Conceptual Art'. This is a branch of the visual arts in which an idea takes precedence over the aesthetics and craftsmanship traditionally associated with the great media handed down to us through the centuries (notably drawing, painting, and sculpture). A conceptual artist making an installation or presenting an objet trouvé is not required to demonstrate any skill, except (i) skill in coming up with a gimmick no-one else has thought of before and (ii) skill in self-promotion.

According to some commentators, the 'idea' behind Mark Wallinger's roaming bear suit in the German National Gallery was to symbolise disguise-wearing spies infiltrating Berlin during World War II, but perhaps this is wishful thinking, as Wallinger himself said that "I just pictured what might happen if it was illuminated and a single figure or a creature was moving about nocturnally... an exercise in maintaining the attention of the curious."

Tracey's unmade bed

When an artist called Tracey hit on the concept of her unmade bed 'graphically illustrating' the "whole human life-cycle in the place where most of us spend our most significant moments" and felt it should win an award for artistic merit, she decided to send it in for the 1999 Turner Prize. Lo, Serota and his arty cronies shortlisted 'My Bed' into the top four entries, undeterred by the fact that this applies to most people's beds. Ah, but wait. Of course. No-one else had thought of it before. The Turner Prize sponsors would love it and Charles Saatchi might like to buy's unmade bed for £150,000.

If anyone supposes this is typical of the age in which we live, with fashion-driven monetization as the primary dictator of taste and what rises to public prominence, they need only to look at film, photography, literature, and to a lesser extent architecture, to see that art is not dead. Or perhaps consider the fact that the influential Saatchi Gallery, which throughout the 1990's and early 2000's promoted rubbish of the sort referred to in this article, finally shifted direction in 2005 with a major exhibition titled 'The Triumph of Painting'.

But it's a silly title for an art exhibition; almost as if the 'triumph' has only just been discovered. A 'Triumph of Painting' has been over at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square since some time during the 19th century, and in hundreds of other great art galleries throughout the world, including the Tate Gallery itself. In this context, the Turner Prize with its pickled sharks, unmade beds, and wandering bears is nothing more than a bit of media fun.

Related article: The Turner Prize 2016 phase of the pulse of what's happening.

Page last modified: December 09, 2016


Posted by peter quinnell

March 30th, 2008 at 23:18

I enjoy and like some of the art you discuss, but I think you make a very valid point. Respect due.

Posted by Nick Taylor

September 29th, 2008 at 20:13

'And to many of the galleries, dealers, critics, collectors, and other hangers-on who think of themselves as the art establishment, art is anything that makes them money.'

Excellently put!

Posted by claire tuthill

January 25th, 2009 at 13:33

i broadly agree with you. We live in an age where mediocrity and ineptness is lauded – the worst thing about Emin etc is the superficiality and paucity of concept. There is some interesting stuff out there but it sure as hell isn't the overpriced and tedious rubbish produced by this lot.

Posted by frog

July 9th, 2010 at 13:41

I think the Germans had the term "entartete kunst" to describe this mindless twaddle. It seems the central skill of the modern artist is to spin enough pompous and ambiguous language hide the fraud.

Dump this toss in the skip and lets encourage real creativity and talent.

Posted by Patrick

July 9th, 2010 at 13:53

Well said. I agree completely.

Posted by smiley

April 23rd, 2011 at 07:53

It's amusing that all you are actually doing is advertising your ignorance and narrow minded, conservative prejudices about art.

Posted by Karine Akehurst

May 23rd, 2016

Brilliantly put!!! The levity and truth that Patrick relays here is far more important than the offerings of shallow shit the Turner Prize itself has to offer. The shitty shortlist should have been announced a month earlier on April Fools Day; because that's what it is- a festival of fools. The only thing of interest I can say about this charade is that it's amazing how you can both despair at a purported high prestige so called art platform, and crack up over it at the same time... Oh, and diversity is never represented either is it? It is shameful that it's a white middle class thing exclusively- apart from a presenter they tend to get in over proceedings so they can deny aforementioned point.

Posted by Oscar Wilde

December 7th, 2016

The public has always, and in every age, been badly brought up. They are continually asking art to be popular, to please their want of taste, to flatter their absurd vanity, to tell them what they have been told before, to show them what they ought to be tired of seeing, to amuse them when they feel heavy after eating too much, and to distract their thoughts when they are wearied of their own stupidity.

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Patrick Elsewhere

The art of Françoise Taylor:
paintings & drawings by my mother, vécue 1920-2007