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Pros or Cons? Young British artists and the Turner Prize

The Turner Prize is a British contemporary arts award that has dominated the arts calendar for twenty-five years. Judging by some recent winners, one could ask, "What is the arts world coming to?!" Or, one could dig deeper into how—and indeed, why—Turner Prizes are awarded . . .
60 Minutes Silence
60 Minutes Silence

Imagine a video of twenty-six uniformed policemen and women posing for a group photograph. The camera and the group stay in the same position for the full hour that the video lasts. The work, entitled 60 Minutes Silence, is made by artist Gillian Wearing. In 1996 it won her the Turner Prize, worth £25.000. What are we to make of this?

The Turner Prize is a British contemporary arts award given to "a British artist under fifty for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the twelve months preceding." Founded 25 years ago as an award to celebrate new developments in contemporary British art, it has come to dominate the British arts calendar ever since. As Virginia Button described it in The Turner Prize: Twenty Years (Tate Publishing, 2007): "The idea [of the Turner Prize] is to do for new art what the Booker Prize has done for new fiction: generate a great cloud of fuss, feuding, gossip, theatrical controversy . . . and so forth, that will focus public attention on what artists are up to."

And fuss it did create. This was the event which involved young British artists—or "YBAs" as they would come to be called—such as Damien Hirst (the pickled shark, the dissected cows, the diamond studded skull . . .), Tracey Emin (the unmade bed, the tent with the names of everybody she had ever slept with embroidered on it . . .), Chris Ofili (the Virgin Mary, the elephant dung . . .), the Chapman Brothers (the Goya take-offs, the morphed child mannequins . . .) and the like. These were the artists who were to create such a stir with the exhibition Sensation in 2000, with New York mayor Rudy Giuliani (unsuccessfully) trying to ban the Ofili piece.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst (1991)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

Every year the prize receives extensive coverage in both the British broadsheets and the tabloids where the nominations are either praised for their brilliance or ridiculed for their banality. A television channel took over the Prize's sponsorship in 1991 and proceeded to produce a series of informative programs introducing the uninitiated to the often obscure and elitist world of contemporary art. All in all, the prize managed to bring contemporary art to the attention of the common public and contributed to a vast increase in attendance at contemporary art exhibitions.

I have always been fascinated by the range of issues surrounding the Prize.

For a start, there have been the usual outcries. The tabloid press—especially their cartoonists—have a field day turning the annual event into a recurring exercise in mockery, playing on their readers' already firmly established prejudice that modern art is just one big con-trick, and its creators the great fraudsters of our day. How could someone presenting an empty room with the lights going on and off (Martin Creed, Work No.227, The Lights Going On and Off, 2000) ever be rewarded with such a prestigious and lucrative prize? Surely some people out there in "the art world" are laughing all their way to the bank!

Yet, as figures have shown, people actually seeing the art and attending the exhibitions judged differently. They may not understand or like or praise the art, but few have been inclined to think that it is the result of an art world "conspiracy," a ploy by a small artistic elite playing on the public's ignorance and gullibility.

What interests me even more, however, is the way the four annual jurors are supposed to come to their decisions. After all, judging something to be "outstanding," even in the neutral sense of "standing out," implies some reliance on values and criteria. As art critic Claire Bishop puts it in her preface to The Turner Prize: Twenty Years: "The concept of a prize continues to uphold a belief that aesthetic judgment is possible." Yet, those values and criteria are supposed to be in constant flux and under attack by the very art which is supposed to be judged by them. So where does that leave us?

I had a unique glimpse of insight in this dilemma not so long ago when listening to one of this year's four judges, The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones, at the annual conference of the British Society of Aesthetics. Jones had only been appointed to the jury a short while earlier and was surprisingly and refreshingly frank in sharing his own doubts and insecurities about how to go about the task of judging. He plainly admitted to having no clear sense of criteria or standards by which to evaluate a potential candidate and even appeared somewhat overwhelmed by the responsibility of having to do so at all.

Even so, as became clear in the course of his talk, as an experienced art critic Jones was well equipped to spot an "outstanding" work, even if he did not know how—or, perhaps more accurately, was reluctant to specify why it might be superior to another. In other words, he was able and willing to describe why something was good (or interesting, or striking), but unable (or unwilling) to say why something was better.

Everyone I have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 by Tracey Emin (1995)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Everyone I have Ever Slept With 1963–1995

This made me think again about the nature of art and about what might be considered its outstanding qualities. Are there no unique and irreducible qualities one can hold up as possible criteria by which to judge one work of art to be better than another? Is it just a matter of personal preference or long term exposure to art?

I believe that a term coined by Christian philosopher of art Calvin Seerveld in the 1980s is still of considerable value in this debate—and I recommend Seerveld's A Christian Critique of Art and Literature (Tuppence Press, 1995) and Rainbows for a Fallen World (Tuppence Press, 2005) to readers. For Seerveld, it was not "beauty" that characterized the uniqueness of art but "allusiveness." A work of art is allusive when it has a metaphorical richness or suggestiveness beyond its immediate visual impact. Such metaphorical richness, in turn, does not consists in a one-to-one symbolic or allegorical meaning, but in a more open-ended evocation of subtle moods and complex feelings disclosing some aspect of life and human experience. It is a work that invites the kind of interpretation that imaginatively enriches and transforms our common perceptions of the world.

As such, "allusiveness" is not only a descriptive but also an evaluative term. One can have degrees of allusivity. In other words, while accepting with philosopher of art Arthur Danto and other institutional theorists that, in principle, everything can be art, we can now turn to the far more interesting question: "But is it good art?" The principle of allusivity allows us to take on again the bold task of evaluative judging in the often bewilderingly diverse range of contemporary art. It allows me, for instance, to judge Damien Hirst's work as visually strong and striking—the marks of a good design or advertisement—but as allusively weak and one-dimensional. One could say the same of the work of, for instance, Sarah Lucas, Tracy Emin and the Chapman brothers.

By contrast, it allows me to judge works by other Turner nominees as allusively strong and metaphorically rich. I can think of Anish Kapoor's Void Field (1989) with its organic, archetypal shapes; Rachel Whiteread's House (1993) with its memorial quality; Vong Phaophanit's Neon Rice Field (1993) with its serenely simmering light; Cornelia Parker's Colder Darker Matter (1997) with its mysterious and poetic interplay of interior and exterior and, indeed, Gillian Wearing's 60 Minutes Silence.

The first time I heard of Wearing's piece was on the evening news when the Turner Prize winner was announced, accompanied by a five second clip of her video. My initial reaction, I should confess, was the same as I'm sure that of many others—surprise, bewilderment, indignation, and a feeling of "what has the (art) world come to?!"

Yet, once I had an opportunity to see the full-length video at London's Tate Gallery, I changed my view. This work has much more to it than one might have expected from its initial description. The longer you watch video the more you get to recognize the uniformed individuals' different personalities merely by the way they respond to the suppressed tension of having to sit motionless for so long. Sustained observation of their small but unique body postures and gestures—a shuffle, a cough, a scratch, a stretch, a yawn—transforms this group from an anonymous, corporate, law enforcing police corps into a collection of individuals each with their own personalities and life stories. You wonder what they are thinking about and gradually you are drawn into their tacit narrative. At some point we feel our gaze is being returned and it is us who are being questioned. The work, in short, opens up all kinds of layers of meaning. It leads you into an unexpected meditation on public and private spheres and on life and society in general.

Despite his contracted vow of silence about the inner proceedings of the jury, Jonathan Jones inadvertently let it slip that he had seen one particular work that had captured his imagination. From his description I am reasonably sure it is one of the four nominated works for this year's prize. It is a work by sculptor Roger Hiorns called Seizure (2008) and consists of a derelict flat in South London which has been filled with liquid copper sulphate that over time has encrusted every surface of the space with blue crystals. Although I have so far only seen a photo of the installation—the exhibition with the nominees' work does not open until October—I have a sense that this work may well be a winner. It has, so it seems to me, exactly that allusive, poetic quality which allows us to be transported into a different, "once upon a time" reality, and then to return to our daily world while seeing it with different eyes.

On December 6th we will hear the live televised announcement of this year's winning work, but this time I won't make a judgment until I've gone to see it for myself!

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Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin
Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin (Ph.D.) taught philosophical aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto from 1999-2007. ... read more »

Posted in Arts.

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