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Thursday, 31 October, 2002, 12:42 GMT
Art lover's Howells of protest
Kim Howells
Mr Howells went to art school in the 1960s

Culture Minister Kim Howells has a reputation for outspoken remarks.

In the past, he has called the Royal Family "a bit bonkers", accused the Welsh of taking themselves too seriously and said Somerset folk music was his idea of hell.

His latest verbal assault - branding this year's entries for art's Turner Prize "cold, mechanical conceptual bullshit" - is strong even by his standards.

But it would be wrong to write the remarks off as a minister's clumsy attempt to chime with tabloid opinion on "modern art".

In fact, the opposite could be true.


Some in Westminster suspect Mr Howells of committing the even greater sin of being too knowledgable - and caring too much - about his ministerial brief.

Visitors look at Liam Gillick's Coats of Asbestos Spangled with Mica
Mr Howells did not like what he saw at the Tate
An art school graduate, with strong views on cultural elitism, Mr Howells was clearly angered by what he saw on display at the Tate Britain gallery.

With typical bluntness, he left a note saying British art was "lost" if that was the best it could produce.

His note added: "The attempts at conceptualisation are particularly pathetic and symptomatic of a lack of conviction."

One man crusade

He later said he felt "disappointed" and "infuriated" after visiting the gallery.

"It's pretty boring stuff, really.

"I can hardly think of a work of art that has been produced over the past couple of decades that has any kind of purchase over the public consciousness," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

A former Communist and a leading figure in the South Wales miners' strike, though an opponent of Arthur Scargill, Mr Howells is certainly an unlikely figure to be promoted in a Tony Blair government.

But he has moderated his style and is credited with giving a solid ministerial performance, firstly at the education department and then the DTI.

Since his appointment as a culture minister, the former freelance television and radio presenter has been on a one man crusade against elitism.

In October last year, he turned his fire on the cosy "Crachach" culture of the arts establishment in his native Wales.

'Estelle Morris syndrome'

Launching a pop music project for young people he said: "The arts have been in the grip of a bunch of constipated old wrinklies for far too long."

The following month he warned the Welsh film industry against a "ghetto mentality".

But Mr Howells' latest outburst has led some unkind souls at Westminster to suggest he has fallen foul of "Estelle Morris syndrome".

Ms Morris, a former teacher, cared so much about education she had a crisis of confidence about her performance as education secretary and promptly quit.

Having a laugh?

Mr Howells appears to have no shortage of self-confidence.

But critics might argue that, like Ms Morris, he has become too close to his brief, blinding him to the wider realities of political life.

Then again, he may simply have been having a laugh.

The former NUM researcher, who entered parliament in 1989, is known for his wicked sense of humour.

According to award-winning comic actor and fellow Welshman Rob Bryden, Mr Howells' is a "good laugh", who is noted for his impression of Ronnie Corbett.

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Turner Prize
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