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The trouble with Turner

The UK culture minister's attack on the 'conceptual bullshit' of the Turner Prize was itself a piece of performance art.

Aidan Campbell

Topics Culture

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Am I the only person to suspect that culture minister Kim Howells’ Stuckist-style intervention into the Turner Prize this year was another case of government spin?

He made his notorious comments on one of the comment forms provided by the Tate at the end of a private view (‘If this is the best that British artists can produce then British art is lost. It is cold, calculated, conceptual bullshit’).

Why do I suspect that this bluster is a set up? In October 2002, industry minister Patricia Hewett objected to a poster promoting this year’s motor show supposedly because it featured a glamour model. Then we find out from Have I Got News For You? that Ms Hewett actually found the poster pretty innocuous, but made the comment about the poster girl just to get publicity for her pet project of getting more women into engineering. Mr Howells’ motives are similarly suspect, too.

His Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has bought plenty of art works by Turner Prize winners in the past. He even has a work by one of them on the wall of his office (Richard Long, the 1989 winner). Furthermore, since 1997, the department has purchased seven works by one of this year’s contenders: Catherine Yass.

There is only one conclusion to be drawn from this furore: Howells’ intervention was more designed to publicise the event than to share with us his opinions on the current state of British art. In that light, we should view Mr Howells’ involvement as a piece of performance art, and very much part and parcel of the annual razzmatazz that is the Turner Prize.

As most of the artists and critics who subsequently rushed to defend their Turner Prize made clear, the prize is not about representing all British art, but is about cutting-edge art. From traditional Sunday painters to the radical Stuckist group, some people have never got this point. Not all art is about painting pretty pictures (or expressionist ones, in the case of the Stuckists). But the Tate and Channel 4 and the whole cultural industry needs these opponents more than they themselves know.

For if there is no such opposition to the Turner Prize, then how can it present itself as exciting and cutting edge and avant-garde and creative? If everyone simply shrugs their shoulders when the list of Turner Prize contenders is released, then its sponsors begin to look like what they really are: the existing arts establishment and the British culture industry. The Turner Prize is their international shop window for their products.

Yet it is social death for these old crusties to appear as they really are. In truth, it is difficult to be any more conventional than to be recognised and accepted by the Tate and Channel 4 and the DCMS. What to do? Better invent an opposition who can rail and rant and form pickets outside the Tate on prize winner’s night. There’s nothing like running a gauntlet of protesters for the great and the good to feel that somehow they are still a bit radical, a trifle subversive.

From the KLF burning their money to Madonna swearing like a trooper, there’s always somebody who can generate some headlines for the prize every year. We can only be sure of one thing. Like a spoilt child throwing a tantrum, the one thing the British art cognoscenti doesn’t like is public indifference (see their petulance at the lack of a British artist being nominated as the Greatest Briton).

How about this year’s art? Patrick Hughes is so right about one of the contenders. That old-time Pop Artist has bluntly declared that ‘A world that needs Liam Gillick is a sad world’. For me, the same goes for Catherine Yass and Fiona Banner (though I expect Banner to win). From reviewing the comment cards at the Tate, the people’s choice is cartoonist Keith Tyson. This is mainly, I suspect, because he has done so much more work compared to his rather minimalistic rivals.

The message of their ‘transgressive’ and ‘challenging’ art is all much the same as each other. Banner’s uses words to negate the ‘power’ of pornographic imagery; Gillick investigates how urban planning has been compromised by market speculation; Yass aims to capture the alienating void at the heart of modernity; and Tyson playfully aims to relativise scientific dogma. Tyson is the most interesting of this sour lot because he is the most visual, and therefore deserves to win.

If the prize organisers had any confidence in their choices, they wouldn’t have to rely on ridiculous stunts to whip up headlines for it. The art would speak for itself. But there’s too much riding on the occasion to let that happen. I wonder what next year’s stunt will be, and whether it will be more interesting than the art.

Aidan Campbell is the author of Western Primitivism, African Ethicity: A Study in Cultural Relations, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and a contributor to Art: What Is It Good For?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

This article was originally published on Culture Wars

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