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Why Is the Turner Prize Still Causing Outrage?

Posted: 05/12/11 00:00

The winner of the 2011 Turner Prize will be announced on tonight live on Channel 4 but, at 27 years old, how is this annual art event still capable of causing outrage?

Before we dive in, what is the Turner Prize? Tate offers a very basic and easy-to-understand definition: "The prize is awarded each year to "a British artist under 50 for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the 12 months preceding."

But in addition to the facts outlined above, the Turner Prize also carries with it a lot of emotional baggage. It's probably the most famous art prize in this country and, if you've heard of it, you'll most likely have an opinion on it (informed or not). Its fame has also seen it become (or perhaps it always was) a cipher for your own emotional reactions to contemporary art - positive and negative.

Obviously there are thousands of people who enjoy contemporary art, who find it fascinating or stimulating, who have already visited Baltic in Gateshead where the Prize is being held this year and who have proven that there is a wealth of response far beyond the outright hostility that is traditionally set up against the art establishment in the media polemic at this time of year. I'm also heartened to note that the ratio of vitriolic to rational responses seems to be improving year on year but the negativity that peppers the bottom of internet articles is still unavoidable, so - assuming that it's not just the usual capslock trolling of the web - where does it all come from?

The anti-Turner argument, in my eyes, is the result of two things. One being the challenge of teaching contemporary art in schools and the other being that there are a great number of people who think being an artist should involve the same technical skills as it did 100 years ago.

Modern art is generally self-referential. This means that when walking into an exhibition without any knowledge of art theory, other contemporary art or the practice of that particular artist you can rapidly find yourself out of your depth. The work itself can look trivial or ridiculous when it may actually be representing the culmination of a long and interesting study of something you would find absolutely fascinating if only you knew what it was.

Breaking into this tightly spiralling stream of self-reference can be difficult. I assisted with art classes in one secondary school for a while and experienced an extraordinary resistance from some quarters when it came to contemporary art. Parents suspected that their child was wasting valuable school time doing something that would be useless to their development and future. Several were outraged about a class visit to Tate Modern (turns out Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII - that pile of bricks - is still giving inordinate amounts of trouble after over half a century) and the parental scorn was reiterated by the children who had been in the audience for these diatribes.

When the prevailing opinion in a child's life is that contemporary art is just so much hot air and when there are rather a few galleries guilty of getting lost in the theoretical when it comes to guide leaflets and press releases and when art is such a difficult thing to define anyway it's not surprising that communicating the value of contemporary art is sometimes a struggle. It's also no surprising that some of these initial opinions endure long after art lessons cease to be part of your schedule.

Following on from the difficulty in defining art is this idea that to be an artist one has to show the same technical skill as famous artists of the past. Can you draw like Da Vinci? Can you paint like Caravaggio? Can you sculpt like Michelangelo? If not then you've no business calling yourself an artist.

But do you really have to be able to draw or to paint or to sculpt to be labelled an artist? I don't think so.

These are forms which artistic expression can take but they are not all-encompassing. The reason for this is that art does not need to be figurative.

Being able to produce a recognisible likeness is indeed a skill, but how much demand is there for portrait painters now? The role of artists as recorders of likenesses is largely removed by technological advancement. Why not just take a photo? Religious changes have also had an effect on art as churches have cut down the previously vast reserves of cash spent on altar pieces and church decoration. Still lifes are currently occupying a peculiar situation. These used to be regarded as one of the lowest forms of art one could produce and now seem destined for some artistic no-mans-land: the actual ability is one prized by those critical of modern art but it's not something anyone seems particularly willing to invest in beyond insipid prints for the dining room.

The roles fulfilled by the artist hundreds of years ago have in many cases been made redundant or significantly reduced. This has left art in general to progress to a far more introspective/introverted place. The artist, freer from patronage constraints is able to convey his or her own ideas or opinions and work in the manner they believe is most appropriate or most commercial. This freedom is not to be equated with a loss of skill, however, as media such as video installations or performances can and do require amounts of skill and patience equal to those needed for traditional painting or sculpture.

As it goes, the 2011 Turner Prize shortlist does contain one figurative painter - a man named George Shaw who you would expect traditional Turner Prize haters to rally behind but the comments from people outraged by the event expose the fact they are mostly unaware of his existance. Instead there are references to Tracey Emin's unmade bed which was shortlisted in 1999 and which didn't even win.

Of course, it's entirely possible to dislike every single one of the nominees but to do so without bothering to even try to engage with the work is lazy and makes you look small minded. To do so in capital letters without even looking at a picture of the artwork? You come across as terribly threatened by something you haven't even tried to comprehend.

This piece first appeared in a modified form on Art's In The Right Place

 

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