Ruma Islam, Mark Lecky, Goshka Macuga and Cathy Wilkes. An unprepossessing list of four names; yet this is the 2008 Turner Prize short list. I hadn’t heard of them either.
The Turner Prize is a controversial annual award, bestowed by The Tate. Four of the most innovative and experimental British artists under the age of 50 are shortlisted. A Panel of four judges picks the winner.
Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Tate Britain and Chairman of the Turner Prize believes “the prize has been important for the appreciation, understanding and engagement of contemporary art for the British Public. In the 80’s people didn’t really understand what contemporary art was about, it was alien and threatening, an incomprehensible force. It has played an important role in making people feel more comfortable with contemporary art.”
Should art be packaged and pushed towards a mass population? Insisting the importance of art is arguably somewhat dicatorial. And has modern art become more accessible as a result? Certainly the Turner Prize exhibition attracts growing hordes of visitors every year. The proportion of these people that actually understand the artwork is anybody’s guess however. With media fuelled frenzy, many simply turn up to gawp, or out of society-induced cultural aspirations.
The sensationalism surrounding the Turner Prize is a self-perpetuating cycle. Each year the papers are ready to pounce on the next shocking story; transvestites, defacing Goyas, cow dung, an unmade bed, a female winner or a painter in the shortlist. Journalists habitually deride the prize and the artists. In 2001 Tom Parry wrote of Martin Creed’s work, ‘The Lights Going On and Off’, “Take a bare white room with a light switching on and off and what have you got? A Turner Prize winner”. Even Kim Howells, Arts Minister in 2002, snubbed the nominated artworks, describing them as “cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit”.
With such controversy it is hardly surprising that opposing prizes have been established, such as the Anti-Turner Prize, the Stuckists and the Turnip Prize, to name but a few.
Perhaps the Turner Prize has achieved its goal, and the British public do feel more “comfortable” with contemporary art. However, comfort does not always equal knowledge, appreciation or respect. Maybe this familiarity has simply given Britain the strength to ridicule an alien modern entity.
This year The Turner Prize has no corporate sponsor, since the likes of Channel 4 and Gordon’s Gin removed their funding. The winner will be awarded £25,000 and the nominees £5,000 each. The Tate is funding this though their membership scheme. With public funding paying for the prize, perhaps Britain should choose their winner this year? Moreover, possibly the decline in interest for corporate sponsorship highlights the ambivalence felt towards this stale prize. Deuchar believes otherwise, blaming the contentious reputation of the award.
Violent responses to the Turner Prize’s selection of art are not out of the question. It appears we are still learning from the legacy of our art history how to fully appreciate artists producing work in our present environment. Art is subjective and inherently polemic; disparaging the Turner Prize proves that there is no demise, only great debate.