Within the first ten minutes of last night’s televised Turner Prize ceremony, someone had twice declared that the award was a ‘concept’. I must say, this was news to me: I’d always believed it was an award for contemporary art that existed to create a buzz around young artists who otherwise couldn’t get arrested. More often than not, one of the nominees is chosen to manufacture a bit of controversy – hardly the most noble objective, but it can make for a good half hour of telly.
Kim Gordon forgetting what year we were in aside, what we got instead was in no sense good TV, but then that’s not really the point. This year’s point of contention was in fact Assemble, the 18-strong architectural collective nominated for their visionary urban regeneration project in a rundown area of Toxteth. They were polite, gracious and decidedly un-gobby. Yet their nomination and subsequent win are, I think, a cause for genuine controversy.
I first came across Assemble a few years ago, when they turned an abandoned petrol station on London’s Clerkenwell Road into a fully functioning cinema. Since then, as anyone who saw their ‘Brutalist Playground’ at RIBA will attest, they’ve only become more impressive. Whatever your politics, it’s hard to disapprove of them. But they ain’t artists, baby.
After the travesty that was last year’s shortlist, it was generally agreed that the Turner needed a rocket fired up its arse. To its credit, the jury realised this and acted on it. It’s just that by choosing Assemble as the warhead on this particular bum Trident, they sent the whole thing off course.
Look, it’s pointless to grope for an exact definition of what is art and what is not. It can’t really be defined. But for argument’s sake, I think a fair guideline would be to say that making art is a vital and intellectually informed activity that can’t reasonably be classified as anything else.
You can put hats on what Assemble do, though. On the one hand, they’re a DIY architectural practice; on the other, they’re a craft workshop. This is clear from their display at Glasgow’s Tramway gallery, a mockup of one of the Toxteth houses they worked on in which you can buy their furnishings and design products. It’s interesting, but as I wrote when I reviewed the show, it’s a showroom, not an art installation.
What’s particularly unfortunate is that the other three nominees are all interesting artists. Granted, none were nominated for their strongest hand to date (I’d go so far as to say that sitting through Janice Kerbel’s musical performance Doug was actively nauseating), but all deserve recognition that a Turner win would have been one of the few means of securing. The Turner is one very few awards that can really advance an artist’s career.
Ach, what’s the use. At this point, I’m tempted to give up and say ‘who cares?’ Trust me, it really is difficult to get cross about their win – the first to inspire any public cheer in years, no less. Even I’m happy for them, up to a point. Assemble are imaginative, conscientious and socially useful. What’s not to like?
You tell me. Nevertheless, it’s a bit like giving the Booker prize to Thomas Piketty. Assemble’s work is impressive, yes, and doubtless more culturally important than anything in the Turner’s remit. But that doesn’t make it art. And art, after all, is only the bloody point of the thing.