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Friday, 1 November, 2002, 17:23 GMT
Eyes on the Turner Prize
The Turner Prize remains controversial

Calling this year's Turner Prize nominations "cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit", culture minister Kim Howells has initiated the annual free-for-all over British contemporary art's most high-profile award.
As sure as night follows day, so the announcement of this year's Turner Prize nominations was certain to spark a furious debate about the nature of art and about those who sponsor it.

Popular opinion, as expressed in the tabloid press, has long since written off modern art as a laughable con-trick.

But Kim Howells, himself a fine arts graduate and a man not averse to conceptual art in principle, has, by his comments, exemplified the bitter divisions that exist within the art world itself about everything the Prize represents.

Rachel Whiteread
Rachel Whiteread won in 1993 with her inside-out house
The Turner Prize was started in 1984 when the Tate Gallery, perhaps feeling that it was falling behind in its championing of contemporary art compared to galleries such as the Whitechapel and the Serpentine, decided to reward "the person who has made the greatest contribution to art in Britain in the previous 12 months".

It was a rather mundane affair to begin with. Established painters such as Gilbert and George, and Howard Hodgkin took away the £10,000 prize with little fanfare.

Courting publicity

The nature of the Prize changed dramatically in 1991 after the Tate's director, Sir Nicholas Serota, realised how other prizes such as the Booker, Brits, Baftas et al, had capitalised on media exploitation.

He struck a deal with Channel 4 to televise the awards ceremony, doubled the prize money, reduced the nominees from six to four, and, to the chagrin of some in the art world, slapped on an age limit of 50.

Turner himself would not qualify for his own prize

David Lee
The publicity it has generated has been enormous. Artists like Damien Hirst with his pickled sheep and Tracey Emin with her unmade bed (which didn't even win), have become household names.

We've been treated to shirts with holes in, houses built inside out, lightbulbs that flash on and off, a blown-up garden shed and even the occasional painting, albeit in elephant dung.

Open in new window : Turner Prize 2002
See the art shortlisted for this year's £20,000 prize

Suddenly, contemporary art was being discussed in a way it hadn't been for decades. The Turner Prize had put it on the map with Britain at its centre. A curious public queues every autumn to see the exhibitions the Tate mounts for the nominees' work, always containing something controversial. Seventy thousand saw last year's.

'Marketable gimmicks'

People have come to realise that in the art schools from which these Young Turks were emerging, the traditional scenes of students painting nude models had been largely replaced with artists experimenting with computers, film and videotape.

Sir Nicholas Serota
Tate Britain director Sir Nicholas Serota

But does this make good art? According to David Lee, editor of the arts magazine Jackdaw, the idea that seemingly the only way to reflect perceptively on modern life is by using new media or "marketable gimmicks" is absurd.

"By these criteria Turner himself would not qualify for his own prize unless, of course, he framed his landscapes with a beading of sheep droppings in order to add a note of bucolic authenticity."

On the other hand, Andrew Renton, art critic of London's Evening Standard, believes the work of the Turner nominees is, in general, imaginative and challenging.

'Passionate work'

"These artists have been working for a long time and are deeply serious about understanding the context within which their work is made. This work has broadened the range of references it encompasses. It's often incredibly passionate and incredibly personal."

Tracy Emin's bed exhibit
Protesters trample on Emin's bed
The Turner Prize's judges, usually five, always include both Sir Nicholas and one of the Patrons of New Art, a group of wealthy people who raise money for the Tate.

The rest are selected from critics, curators and others in the art world. An oft-levelled criticism of the Turner Prize is that the standards it sets for contemporary art are decided by this narrow clique.

"These people have institutionalised the avant-garde to the exclusion of almost everything else", says David Lee. "This is a form of state censorship operated by a cabal who exclude work on the basis that it fails to conform to their definition of what constitutes quality in contemporary art. The overwhelming majority of artists are, therefore, rendered ineligible."

Madonna presents last year's prize to Martin Creed
Madonna presents last year's prize to Martin Creed
Sir Nicholas Serota counters that "you can't sustain hype or promotion if there isn't substance behind it".

Love it or loathe it, the Turner Prize has become part of the contemporary scene and has given the Tate, now re-branded as Tate Britain, a new and younger audience. It has also given contemporary art a trendy image. No less a figure than Madonna handed out the prize last year.

But as to the quality of its winners, one recalls the reply of former 1960s Chinese foreign minister Chou en Lai when asked about the effects of the French Revolution. "It's too early to tell."

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31 Oct 02 | Arts
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