Culture House Daily

The Turner Prize shortlist is the worst in its history. Who should have won the award? Nobody

27 November 2014

5:23 PM

27 November 2014

5:23 PM

What were you thinking? What? What? What?

This is the question I’d ask the people who selected the artists for this year’s Turner Prize. The first time I visited, I thought I must have missed something – perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood. Surely no arbiter in their right mind could’ve let such hectoring, cultural studies-sanctioned guff slip through the net? So I went again. And nope. I was right the first time – and then some.

My first Turner Prize was in 1999, and hyperbolic though it sounds, what I saw there changed the way I thought about nearly everything. Yes, it was showy, sensationalist, in-yer-face. But it was pretty clear that the excitement it stirred up was far from empty. The artists that year were Steve McQueen (who won), Jane & Louise Wilson, Steven Pippin and, of course, Tracey Emin.

Say what you like about Mad Tracey from Margate, but being confronted with a work of art like My Bed was quite something – it forced me to think about cruelty, sex and guilt for the first time in my life. It’s no exaggeration to say that this was what shoved me loping into adolescence. What’s more, it was a confrontational, vital work of art that kicked off a national argument. It did what it was supposed to do.

So for this reason, I’ve always tried to give the Turner Prize a fair hearing. Even when I know I’ve been wrong, I’ve defended the Tate’s annual love-in as a necessary evil of the arts calendar. ‘It’s a bad year,’ I might have admitted, ‘but in general, the Turner Prize is A Good Thing.’


But this year, I’ve had it. I give up.

It’s bad alright. But hang back – ‘bad’ doesn’t tell the full story, not by a long way. We need qualifiers here. To put it bluntly, the Turner Prize’s 2014 selection committee has somehow contrived to put together the worst shortlist in the award’s history. With the exception of (Canadian) artist Ciara Phillips’s room, the show is proper bottom-of-the-barrel bollocks.

This makes it sound interesting, in the way that an air disaster might be interesting. It’s not. You feel you’ve been robbed of the time you’ve spunked watching the films of Duncan Campbell, James Richards and Tris Vonna-Michell. It has, frankly, set new standards for quite how bad art in a major gallery can get.

‘By bringing four different artists together, you get four very different views of what’s significant in the world today,’ Nick Serota claimed recently. One is tempted to take that statement literally. What is significant in the world today? Marx? French art house cinema? Onanism in the name of ‘making a statement’?

The show does demand some difficult questions. Namely: are these four really the best young(ish) artists Britain has to offer? And is this the final proof that we’ve hit cultural rock bottom?

Of course not. All it proves is just how ghastly, self-congratulatory and unapproachable the British art establishment can be when it gets the chance. In theory, the prize helps raise the profile of artists who deserve greater recognition – and in fairness, I think that on occasion the Turner Prize still does this. For the first time in God-knows-how-long, last year’s line-up was pretty good. But this?

If we’re being kind, which isn’t easy, we might imagine that this isn’t the artists’ fault. Who knows? Maybe if it was displayed in a disused transport caff in East Berlin or somewhere, Duncan Campbell’s work might make more sense. Maybe, just maybe, Tris Vonna Michell and James Richards’s art might be great in isolation. I doubt it, but never say never.

The trouble is that their work is all but indistinguishable: it’s monochrome, student-political and self-consciously ‘mysterious’. It’s gauche and should never have been put in a museum show, let alone the most hyped-up museum show of the year. Who profits from it? Well, as you’re by now aware, it sure as hell ain’t the public. Not the artists, either – they get five grand and a sewage tank of the sort of vitriolic mockery I’m peddling here. Nobody profits in the long term. Except for brand Tate.

There is a clear winner this year, and that is Ciara Phillips. I’ve seen better examples of her shouty, colourful work elsewhere, and even those are hardly life-changing. Here, her stuff stands out by virtue of the dross that surrounds it. But it does at least stand out, albeit by default. It might seem unfair to Phillips, but I’ve got an idea I’d like to put to the Turner jury.

This year, make a stand. Don’t give the award to anybody. Because if you’re serious about the rubbish on show this year, you are insulting every artist working in Britain today. You are insulting the public, who are expected to cough up £11 to look at this crap. And you know what the real kicker is? You’re undermining any justification for the Turner Prize’s existence.

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Show comments
  • Alan Yates

    Joseph Mallord William must be writhing in his grave at this annual desecration of his noble name and reputation.

  • Des Demona

    Nobody should have won the prize? I didn’t even know he was entered.

  • Aberrant_Apostrophe

    The year the EU ‘won’ the Nobel Peace Prize was the year the Nobel Committee should have said “Nope, no-one is worthy of it. We’ll give it a miss this year”.

  • Fenman

    hockney said it all’ to be an artist you have to be able to draw’ Enough said.
    But, even worse was Channel 4s childish coverage, left me incandescence.

  • Fraser Bailey

    It’s the phrase ‘student-political’ that is key here. I never cease to be amazed by the juvenile understanding of the world demonstrated by more or less all artists.

  • Mc

    “The show does demand some difficult questions. Namely: are these four really the best young(ish) artists Britain has to offer? ”

    I’m sorry to say that Britain has produced about a handful of world beating, great artists throughout its entire history, and some of those artists were only British resident.

  • freddiethegreat

    If an ‘expert’ has to explain it to a layman, then it isn’t art.

  • thisisit

    Well, I’m still surprised that this boring conceptual “art” we often get at the Turner Prize is still the rage and supposed to be the pinnacle of contemporary British art. I feel all this is so boring and has-been. I fear that art today can only exist through provocation and being, as Digby Warde- Aldam writes, “self-consciously mysterious”. Maybe art has killed itself off.

  • Count Otto Black

    I don’t really see what all the fuss is about. We’ve all known for quite some time that the Turner Prize doesn’t really matter to anybody other than a pretentious élite with more money than sense who just want a way of redistributing cash by officially decreeing that certain objects are valuable.

    It should be remembered that the Dadaist movement, which existed for a brief time almost a century ago, had a very good point to make. Art was supposedly the purest expression of civilization and culture, yet the society which produced the great art of previous centuries put the cherry on the cake by starting World War One, in which many Dadaists were directly involved. If that’s your civilization’s crowning achievement, then everything about it is broken, therefore a good way to protest about this without further bloodshed is to deliberately break art. And since shock tactics don’t work after the initial shock has worn off, Dada wasn’t around for very long, and was never intended to be.

    So-called “Brit-Art” takes the basic ideas of Dadaism and cynically exploits them for money, even though the whole “anti-art” thing which was genuinely shocking in 1916 ran out of steam by 1922, and it was never about money in the first place. One early Dada piece was exhibited alongside an axe and a notice inviting anybody who really, really disliked it to chop it to bits. Of course, somebody did.

    But ultimately it doesn’t matter at all. The only shock value these people can muster comes from the fact that idiots are willing to pay them huge sums for art which anyone can see is worthless, and sometimes it’s public money which could have been spent on something that mattered. On at least two occasions, cleaners have accidentally destroyed installations worth tens of thousands of pounds because they didn’t realize it was anything other than a mess that needed cleaning up, even though it was in an art gallery. That should tell us something.

    Why can’t we have an Anti-Turner Prize in which unknown artists are rewarded purely for being really good at art? Presumably because a tiny clique of very rich people don’t fancy widening their net to include artists they didn’t manufacture and can’t control. Ironically, the Stuckist movement, which advocates this idea, has utterly failed to capture the imagination of the public because it’s almost entirely composed of painters who are extremely bad, but not hilariously bad in a Turner Prize kind of way, and just come across as jealous. It doesn’t help that it was co-founded by Billy Childish, the much less rich and famous ex-boyfriend of Tracey Emin.

  • Dr. Heath

    Can anyone identify that moment in history when the purpose of art was transformed into making people ‘think about issues’, ‘confront their own attitudes’ and, as a result, rid themselves of their nasty, anti-progressive points of view and become better [i.e. “progressive”] human beings?

    • Mc

      It gained momentum around the 1950s and 60s, with the USA being the key driver with nonsense with like Conceptual Art, Happenings, Performance Art, etc

    • edithgrove

      I think it may have coincided with, or slightly followed the politicisation of the Arts Council

  • balance_and_reason

    Christ, if Tracey Emin is the bar which these new artists have failed to climb to, we must be in serious shit…..emergency artist shortage everybody take cover!!

  • red2black

    This article reminded me of a Private Eye cartoon showing a crusty old army officer stood in an art gallery, looking disapprovingly at abstract paintings and exclaiming “Hanging’s too good for them!”

  • tjamesjones

    anybody with anything interesting to say or do, isn’t in 2014 an artist. painting and the clever post modern stuff was ticked off by WW1. start a company or make some great tv (breaking bad etc), if you’ve nothing to offer – try the turner!

  • Lydia Robinson

    The elite that dominates the art world today is much like the political elite – self-congratulatory, self-serving, aloof, contemptuous of ordinary people. The conceptual art con trick churns out students from art school who are unable to draw or paint, have never learned any rules about perspective, measuring or even drawing the human figure from life. I gather that art school teachers are no longer required to teach anything about art and just deliver lectures. Imagine if the same nonsense had gone on in music schools and music students were told that learning music theory was no longer required. “Just pick up the violin and fiddle – something will eventually happen.” We have come to the end of the line with this rubbish.

    • Dr. Heath

      Or maybe not? Aloof, self-congratulatory people are in charge everywhere. They are Hale and Pace’s ‘Da Manidgemunt’. It’s easier to be a fraud, especially if one is in charge of an art school or, for that matter, any sort of school. There’s no work involved in not teaching students. Imparting skills is a challenge best avoided if you’re really interested in celebrity and an easy life. Ordinary schools have operated on this principle for years. They’re run by people just as self-serving and as contemptuous of ordinary folk, most of those of course being children under the age of majority.

      One of Goldsmiths’ [that wonder of high culture that’s helped create all those Young British Artists] former employees was on Radio Four – I’m sure it’s twenty years ago – confirming what your comment says about the deliberate decision not to teach any skills to pupils but, instead, to recommend that each of them find his or her own Hirstian gimmick before embarking on career as an ‘artist’. Is there any sign this is changing? I’m not optimistic in the least.

  • AtilaTheHen

    Such a relief to read this article. It sums up my thoughts perfectly. And there was I thinking I must be a philistine.

  • leongillingham

    you somehow forgot to give us any actual detail or description of the artists you hate so much. which seems to be a pretty turneresque way of doing ctiticism

  • souptonuts

    I have backed Phillips @ 5/2. Campbell is the bookies’ favourite @ 13/8.

  • Picquet

    Sadly, Mr Jones of the Guardian’s art pages and his ilk are the sort of people who decide these things; the public, who are the consumers eventually, are treated with patronising contempt for wanting artistic endeavour which actually means something, and which uplifts the soul. Burn the rubbish.

  • Ringstone

    You’ve just developed some taste, for anyone beyond adolescence Emin and Co were bollocks then. Thus is a Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy who onthe basis of all available evidence can’t actually draw. You CAN fool some of the people ALL of the time.

  • Marmite

    What? That time of year for the Turner Prize again? Yawn….

    • balance_and_reason

      Turner prize ceased to be relevant a few years before Emin turned up; just recycling rich ignorant people’s money and farming grant money.

  • Shatterface

    It’s bad alright. But hang back – ‘bad’ doesn’t tell the full story, not by a long way. We need qualifiers here. To put it bluntly, the Turner Prize’s 2014 selection committee has somehow contrived to put together the worst shortlist in the award’s history. With the exception of (Canadian) artist Ciara Phillips’s room, the show is proper bottom-of-the-barrel bollocks.

    I can’t comment on any of the nominees but I do think the word ‘bollocks’ needs to be used more in art criticism.