Media Check – The Turner Prize, Love It Or Hate It

In a minor change of pace, I’ve decided to take a look at something which can be just as divisive and controversial as politics; art. The Turner prize being a perfect example of the love it or hate it side of the art world. This piece by Helen Crane in the Indie caught my eye, not only for addressing this interesting topic, but because I felt it took a petty approach which lacked a serious degree of depth of understanding why the Turner can so be loathed.

The piece starts with an aggressive move against criticism of the Turner prize;

“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.”

So, from the off, it is from ‘outside the art world’ that this self-indulgent, easy to recreate and laughable position comes from. (Regardless of the fact, many from within the art world have criticised it as well…)

As for the jokes, they may be uninformed (you are talking about us plebs from outside the art world mind, so what were you expecting?) but I disagree on the unfunny accusation. And, personally, Tracy Emin’s unmade bed is quite a resounding success by comparison to the blinking lights, blue-tak and scrunched up paper of one year’s winner.

We’re then regaled of how the former Junior Culture Minister Kim Howells (an art school graduate) left a note on the visitor’s board at a gallery which described the collective work as “cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit,”. A Minister telling the truth, how refreshing.

But if this is the view on modern art, we’re asked, why not of modern dance or theatre?

“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.”

To this, I’d say that there are criticisms of modern dance etc, however there’s usually something redeeming which quells most discontentment. It is a sign of just how bad the Turner prize ‘art’ is that we have got to this state. This isn’t a disagreement based on different styles, or subjective tastes. It’s not a matter of only disliking the art on display for the Turner prize, but actively questioning whether it is art. Yes, perhaps you could come out of the Laban and complain about the dancing, but you wouldn’t complain they weren’t ‘actually’ dancing at all.

Show me a ‘dance’ act which consists of people standing still, or vaguely walking in a circle. Then assemble an entire array of such acts and hand one of them a prize. That’s when I’ll question it in the same way I question the Turner prize.

She continues;

“I followed two teenage boys around the Tate Modern last week”

I’ll give her credit here, I’ve never heard an anecdote start like that before…

“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.”

I think this shows an element of snobbishness within modern art. Aside from the sheer snobbishness of this point in isolation (are you saying people cannot go into an art gallery unless they’re guaranteed to enjoy the art within?) teenage boys are exactly the sort of demographic who are put off art galleries, museums etc as it is without questioning the motives of those brave enough to venture forth.

Anyhoo, the wider part of the snobbishness in modern art, I believe, is this; the ‘you just don’t get it’ factor. A great little phrase which washes away 99% of criticism, whether valid or not. It then creates the two classes of those who ‘do’ get and those who ‘don’t’. Those who do are enlightened, wise and understanding. Those who don’t are Philistines, out to make unfunny, uninformed jokes about the subject matter.

“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.”

Picks up the next paragraph, making it seem as if these teenage boys are part of polite society – how kind you are to this demographic. (I can say that, I was one of them not long ago.) Anyway, the more important point to make is how we’re now invited to view affront to the Turner prize as a form of snobbery; critics don’t actually care about it, they just view its existence as an affront to polite society… and red wine no doubt.

“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?”

Comes the next argument, ignoring the fact that many critics of the Turner prize have nothing against modern art per se. Or at least, not all modern art. Simply, that this particular avenue modern art goes down is worthy of abandonment. (For fear of dissapearing up its own arse.)

It also draws upon the ‘we’ve got our thing, you’ve got yours’ sort of idea. Why do you have to criticise our easy to replicate, unappealing, cold and mechanical art, when you’ve got your own places you can go to see pieces which took real skill, passion and presence of mind to create? Well, quite. So now we can’t criticise anything; X Factor? You’ve got BBC 2, Justin Bieber? Don’t stick him on your iPod. The BNP? Don’t vote for them. Criticism is redundant in the consumerist age, because all you do is stick to what you like. Heaven forfend you enter an art gallery, like those two teenage boys, in hope of discovering something interesting and new, and come across total crap instead – crap which, should you insult it – just demonstrates your uninformed, snobbishness…

“Conceptual pieces are often labelled ‘art for art’s sake’ but is this not criticism for criticism’s sake?”

No. Next;

“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)”

So they’ve been listening maybe? Not criticism for criticism’s sake then.

“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.”

That is one factor. But’s not the only one. Think of it like cocktails (I tend to view most things in this way sooner or later). Some are easy to make; screwdriver, cuba libre, gin & tonic… others are harder to make. Not all hard to make ones are good, not all simple ones are bad. Some are more simplistic joys; add vodka and peach schnapps to just about any juice and you have a lovely drink. Whilst others are more complex. The problem with Turner prize style modern art, is that it isn’t just simple, it’s poor and barely constituting of being classed as art. Say, the cocktail equivalent of vodka served with a lemon slice. Gin shaken with ice and poured into a classy looking glass with a lemon sliver thrown in (aka the modern martini…).

But then, that’s a large part of the point conceptual art seeks to make; to make us question what is art and expand the remit. Obviously doing so would draw criticism. That’s surely the point, in a way it’s what makes this stuff art at all. If ever a movement should embrace its criticism, it is modern art and the Turner prize. And, for the most part, I think they have. The Turner certainly makes news headlines and gets free publicity for embracing its critics. But part of embracing, is not demeaning those critics. We’re not uninformed teenage boys who should be off doing our own thing. We should be involved in criticising the movement. To give it meaning, if nothing else.

“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.”

Well, yeah. That doesn’t detract from the arguments made about the Turner Prize, and its recipients though.

“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.”

The article concludes. Again, instantly branding any criticism which is not agreed with as uninformed stereotyping.

In conclusion, not a great piece for me. The Turner Prize is controversial for good cause. Rather than acknowledging that but pointing out how important that is for the prize (if not part of the point), making the case for modern art’s challenging the boundaries of what art is, the piece instead turns up its nose and creates a snobbish disdain for all criticism. You are uninformed if you criticise. You don’t understand it. It’s criticism for criticisms sake. Never once does the article question whether all this criticism might be for good cause. It isn’t a plain question of tastes, its objective measures of quality. And even if it were just a question of taste, so what?  If we can’t criticise things we don’t like, what can we criticise?


Useful Links:

Stuckism – anti-anti-art

Conceptual Art

Turner Prize 2012 review – for those of you who don’t like red wine.


About iwastoldtheredbegin

Politics of the Left Wing and Liberal variety, plus gin!
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