Let’s imagine for a minute that the Turner Prize is cancelled next year. Would anyone care? A few members of the artistic elite and a handful of artists perhaps, but beyond that? I don’t think they would. There are plenty of other valuable art prizes out there, after all. And no one has really taken it seriously for a while now. Each year the same, tired debates come out about how ‘art can be whatever it wants to be’, which is true, but also happens to be the least controversial thing you can say.
So it’s off. Cancelled. No more queues of people waiting to see a light switch turn on and off. No more unmade beds. And no more sullying Turner’s name for the sake of a prize which once awarded first spot to a man dressed as a bear.
Would it matter? Well that very much depends what you think a prize is for. If it is to venerate the best artists a country has to offer, then forget it. We’ve long known the Turner Prize doesn’t do that. As this year’s curator Maolíosa Boyle said: ‘It’s not about how skilled you are, it’s about having a bit of fun’. If it’s to help promote a new artistic movement, then forget that too. The Turner Prize is still primarily championing conceptual art, an important movement for sure, but one kicked off by Marcel Duchamp when he stuck a urinal upside down. That was back in 1917, close to 100 years ago. If it’s to invigorate artistic discussion, then forget that too. It is very rare to read any original commentary on the prize. The brilliant Robert Hughes put it clearly when he was asked to judge the prize – ‘I’d rather fuck newts underwater,’ he replied – and since then, his views have continued to hold true:
‘The Turner prize, I’m afraid, has decayed into a total disgrace. It’s a soggy, flaccid, in-group exercise in an art world that has run out of steam. You’re given a tour of hell and it’s as Milton predicted, “in the lowest deep a lower deep”.’
So the prize is off. Inevitably we would end up interested in the last artist to be awarded it. The art history books would tell us it is installation artist Laure Prouvost, who won in 2013 with her piece Wantee (below), which took us in search of her fictional grandfather. She explored a world in which her family members were friends of the artist Kurt Schwitters. She was up against David Shrigley, who produced a badly proportioned naked statuette, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who offered some murky, forgettable figure paintings and Tino Sehgal, who created a space in which a gallery assistant would have an exchange with you about the market economy. You could hardly call it a vintage year. But then you would look back, and see that most years were hardly vintage years. There were some good artists who won – Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, Antony Gormley – but many of the nominees just didn’t seem that important in the grand scheme of things. And that has been the prize’s main failure – each year it pops up, and each year we expect it to present us with the latest crop of artistic talent, but as Hughes put it:
‘There’s this fantasy people have had for a long time that quality in art is something that renews itself every year. Of course it’s bullshit. It’s hooked in the modernist myth of continual renewal. You can’t just expect terrific artists to pop up on cue. We knew you didn’t get a Titian every few years. Now we know you don’t get a Hirst every five minutes.’
We wouldn’t miss the Turner prize if it disappeared, because it fails to do what an art prize actually should: champion great art, and the artists who produce it.