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Thursday, 31 October, 2002, 17:53 GMT
The art of Turner protests
Tracey Emin's My Bed
Tracey Emin's bed attacked - the rest is history

Culture minister Kim Howells' criticism of the "cold, mechanical" and "boring" Turner Prize was not the first attack on the award, and will not be the last.

Whether you agree with the jury's choices or not, the Turner Prize is nothing if not entertaining.

Kym Howells's note
Mr Howells added his views to a comments board at the gallery
It is supposed to reward the best in British art - and that is where the controversy starts, because nobody can agree on what good art is.

Fortunately for the spectators, the people who it annoys are the people who are most passionate about art - other artists.

That means their protests are often as artful as the winning entries.

Kim Howells made his anger known with a note raging against the "pathetic" nature of "conceptual bullshit" and pinned it on the gallery's comments board.

Common complaint

An art student in his youth, Mr Howells' note could now be considered a work of art in itself.

A common complaint against the prize is that it rewards everyday items - and it was reported on Thursday that artist Sean Hall has taken the joke to its logical conclusion.

He has placed a bet with William Hill that the very betting slip with which he placed the wager would win the Turner Prize by 2005.

Chris Ofili
Ofili's work inspired a dung protest
He was inspired by the successes of elephant dung, dead animals and empty rooms, which have all won past awards.

Then there were the clown costumes, the broken eggs and the graffiti. But they were just more protests.

The Turner Prize was born into controversy in 1984 when its inaugural winner, Malcolm Morley, said he was "disgusted" at how the prize pitted artists against each other like a "blood sport".

But the fun did not begin in earnest until the 1990s.

After sculptor Grenville Davey won in 1992, he warned future entrants that media pressures would require "protective headgear, thick gloves, barrier cream, a length of rubber hose and definitely a sense of humour".

The following year, Rachel Whiteread picked up the 20,000 prize for House, an inside-out concrete cast of a demolished house in east London.

Arts trust

Affronted by the choice, art saboteurs and rock group the K Foundation created an award for the year's worst artwork with twice the prize money and awarded it to Whiteread.

She split the K Foundation money between Shelter, the arts trust at HM Prison Albany and grants for young artists - but neither award cut much ice with Tower Hamlets Council.

The local authority sent the bulldozers in to finish off 193 Grove Road and assure its place in art history.

Tracey Emin's bed
Tracey Emin's bed sparked protests
Two years later, Damien Hirst's winning dead animals made front page news, causing bafflement in some quarters and outrage in others.

"Have they gone stark raving mad?" asked politician Norman Tebbit in The Sun newspaper.

When Hirst's pickled sheep sold for 25,000, The Mirror gave its readers instructions on how to make their own version with a toy sheep and a home-made tank under the headline: "Fleeced!"

Video artist Douglas Gordon tried to turn down his nomination in 1996, saying he was too busy and "would rather not".

Resist and refuse

"But the Tate makes it very difficult for you to turn it down," he said. He went on to win.

The following year, Julian Opie managed to resist and refuse his nomination.


Painting is in danger of becoming an extinct skill in this country

Jacqueline Crofton, Turner protester
As a result, it was an all-female shortlist, which caused as much consternation as the all-male list had done the year before.

When artist Chris Ofili won with a set of paintings made using elephant dung in 1998, a disgruntled illustrator of military books let his feelings be known by dumping a pile of the dung at the Tate's door.

And more attention-grabbing protest was to come when Tracey Emin's infamous unmade bed - complete with soiled sheets, vodka bottles, blood-stained underwear and a used condom - was nominated the following year.

Two men jumped on it and had a pillow fight before being dragged off.

Of Emin's exhibit - which later sold for 150,000 - playwright Tom Stoppard remarked: "It is but a hop, skip and jump to Tracey's knickers."

Meanwhile, then culture minister Chris Smith spoke out against the prize for being "controversy for controversy's sake... too narrow and unrepresentative of British art".

In 2000, the most shocking thing for many was the lack of shocks.

Emergency cleaners

The prize was won by German-born photographer Wolfgang Tillmans - but outside the ceremony, Stuckist demonstrators dressed in clown costumes protested that the prize no longer represented genuine art.

The night before one ceremony, guerrilla artist Banksy stencilled "Mind the crap" on the Tate's steps - forcing the gallery to call in emergency graffiti cleaners.

And after Martin Creed's empty room with lights turning on and off was named winner in 2001, another successful artist, Jacqueline Crofton, took it upon herself to pelt it with eggs.

"At worst, The Lights Going On And Off is an electrical work. At best, it is philosophy," she said.

"Painting is in danger of becoming an extinct skill in this country."

Even if it does kill painting off, at least the Turner Prize will have inadvertently turned protest into an art form.

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