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I’m afraid if you haven’t heard of the Turner Prize I’d probably have to assume you’ve been living under an exceptionally uncultured rock for the entirety of your existence. For those of you feeling embarrassed, it is an annual prize presented to a British visual artist under the age of 50. It began in 1984 and quickly grew to become one of the UK’s most prestigious art awards; previous winners include the likes of Anish Kapoor (1991), Rachel Whiteread (1993) and of course Damien Hirst (1995), and the exhibition for this year’s nominees recently opened a few weeks ago – the winner is announced on the 2nd December.
The Turner Prize annually draws thousands upon thousands of visitors to the exhibition, and for this very reason it is an extremely important event in the British art calendar. In exhibiting the work of these supposedly outstanding British artists it attempts to open up the eyes of the public as to what constitutes ‘good art’ in the here and the now, what the role of art truly is in contemporary culture, how we’re meant to view it, interact with it, and draw any sense of conclusion from it. It’s of utmost value to the art world as the sheer publicity and spectacle of the event over all possible medias means that news of the Turner Prize will infiltrate the social circles that the rest of contemporary art will usually fail to reach. Expect TV programmes, press articles and considerable celebrity backing – this is the face of art that millions will see and it needs to be as good as it possibly can be.
It is said that the Turner Prize represents all artistic medias but in recent years has become mostly associated with conceptual art, and has unsurprisingly received quite a bit of criticism due to this association. In 2002 Culture Minister Kim Howell condemned the prize to “cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit”, and Prince Charles wrote a letter supporting his view, stating that the prize had “contaminated the art establishment for so long”. The Stuckists art group gave out leaflets in 2008 declaring “The Turner Prize is crap” as a protest against the lack of figurative painters amongst the nominees, and Evening Standard critic Brian Sewell described it as an “annual farce”. I do believe that there is some sense in this – after all, with such a controversial air surrounding the prize for so long, to what extent are the nominations staged simply to provoke and build on this expectation that art can be whatever it wants to be? Is this really the best quality art that Britain has produced over the last year, or is it just the art that the organisers want us to see? Interestingly, is there a difference? The Turner Prize prompts questions as to what ‘successful’ art really is, and in recent years the nominations have been on the whole really quite obscure and challenging, especially to the mass audience that it is advertised to.
Last year Elizabeth Price was declared the winner with her 20 minute video installation ‘The Woolworths Choir of 1975’ – a seemingly mismatched amalgamation of text, footage from a fire that killed 10 people in a Woolworths branch in Manchester, a pop video from the 60’s and some white noise (which seems to feature in most successful video works). While the video unsurprisingly encouraged a degree of scepticism, it would be entirely futile to criticise the judging panel for awarding the prize to a challenging video piece, given video’s definite place within the history of the Turner Prize. This year, the nominations include Tino Sehgal’s piece ‘This is Exchange’, which doesn’t actually consist of anything physical but instead offers visitors the chance to walk away from the blank gallery £2 richer if they can successfully engage in a meaningful conversation about the market economy. Favourite to win is Glasgow-based artists David Shrigley; his entry ‘Life Model’ features a naked male robot that occasionally urinates. Of course, the main focus of the artwork is the seats and easels around the model that encourage viewers to draw pictures themselves; this year’s Turner Prize clearly has an emphasis on the interactive audience experience.
The Turner Prize rightly shows that the face of contemporary art is rooted in the conceptual, and its controversy within circles of ‘high art’ enthusiasts and haters of ‘that modern art junk’ is certainly amusing. Of course it will attract criticism and ridiculously grandiose publicity, and maybe this isn’t necessarily something to be proud of, but at the end of the day the job of ruffling feathers has always been art’s and quite frankly should continue to be so.