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Perhaps Michael Gove should get the Turner Prize

6 December 2016

6:15 PM

6 December 2016

6:15 PM

It is a week where you’d imagine most British politicians would be occupied by the Supreme Court ruling over Brexit. But late last night and in the early hours of this, two members of the last government found time for a spat about art on Twitter. Former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove said the Turner Prize had ‘nothingtodowithJMWTurnersgenius’ and that contemporary art was basically all ‘#modishcrap’, showing off his art expertise by misspelling winner Helen Marten’s name. Former arts minister Ed Vaizey stood up for the prize, and acknowledged that ‘brilliant’ contemporary artists could and did exist.

The argument, of course, is an old one: older than the Turner Prize; older than #JMWTurner. What was invigorating was seeing these two back-benched players from opposite Referendum sides – who once held huge influence over the matter now being debated at the Supreme Court – reduced to having a cliched debate on whether modern art was any good. For me, it became art in itself: a take on that other old cliche – whether the arts themselves are relevant.

Ed Vaizay is a politician who has proved he believes in the relevance of the arts, but, whether he likes it or not, his term as the longest-running arts minister in recent years will probably be remembered for its public spending cuts. Just over a month ago during his chairman’s speech for the RCA he claimed his achievements had included ‘[making] museum storage sexy’ and suggested a direction for cutting-edge theatre might be a ‘pro-fox hunting play’ (hard to stage, no?). So it was refreshing to see him so taken with this year’s Turner shortlist, in which the arguably most striking piece was Anthea Hamilton’s huge installation of a spread pair of buttocks.

I’m glad his stance here chimes with past claims. In the same RCA on 27 October he called the arts ‘too conventional’, saying they needed to move in new directions, possibly looking to – and teaming up with – the innovative and rich emerging tech industries in place of public money. It was easy to see his calls to radicalise or futurise the arts as merely a diversion tactic or justification for shutting down libraries, which is hard to stand behind regardless of where you are on the political spectrum.

At least he showed himself to be positively sensitive to what art critic Robert Hughes called the ‘shock of the new’. Gove seems oblivious to the fact that Turner once had this quality – still does if you go upstairs to the Tate Britain’s permanent collection – or that the Goves of his day misunderstood him too, preferring instead to be underwhelmed by a perfectly realised portrait of a dog in a justice’s robe.

But maybe I’m more tone-deaf than Gove. Perhaps the Turner Prize should have gone to him. Most of his political work over the past year appears now like an island-wide conceptual piece. You could call it ‘The Tragic Emptiness of Now’. Just like the YBAs in the early 90s he claimed the public were fed up with the elite gate-keepers. Damien Hirst got his 1995 Turner Prize for ‘Mother and Child (Divided)’, for which he cut cows in half. Michael Gove took the knife to his own party, and divided a country.

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