The Turner prize is boring

And people are finally beginning to say so

1 December 2012

Inside Tate Britain on Monday night, a fashionable London audience will applaud the award of the £25,000 Turner prize to whatever is judged the best thing a British artist under the age of 50 can come up with.

Standing outside will be a group of Stuckists protesting against the overlord who for nearly a quarter of a century has ruled this process. Sir Nicholas Serota chaired the prize until 2007, yet still retains his grip. It is he who has made figures such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin so famous and rich. Yet this year, for the first time, there are finally signs that the Serotan winter is beginning to thaw.

The protestors rage against an art establishment that long ago embraced conceptual art as a dogma, taught that skill is a dirty word, turned art history into a vehicle for cultural Marxism and the rubbishing of genius, indoctrinated generations of art students with the belief that if you say it’s art then it’s art and that success is impossible without fluency in the language of conceptual art-speak. They shout about the nakedness of the emperors and allege plagiarism, nepotism and other misdeeds among the magic circle.

Yet till now public figures mostly toed the Serota line. Only a few — Robert Hughes, Brian Sewell — never ceased to mock and deride where deserved. The Jackdaw, a magazine offering a forum for independent views on the visual arts, has been brave and resolute in its defiance. But on the whole, the young and ambitious recognised that such heresy was no way to get a good degree, or become an artist, art critic, curator, gallerist or academic. The message was clear: conform, or die the professional death.


This started in 1974 when Michael Craig-Martin, a minimalist conceptualist, exhibited a glass of water standing on a wall-mounted shelf, called it ‘An Oak Tree’, and explained in the accompanying text that he had changed the physical substance (though not the appearance) of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. It signalled the supremacy of the artist’s intention over the object. ‘That piece is, I think,’ said Damien Hirst, ‘the greatest piece of conceptual sculpture, I still can’t get it out of my head.’

Craig-Martin was Hirst’s tutor and inspiration at Goldsmiths College and went on to be a Tate trustee: among his work in Tate Modern is what is called ‘an artist’s copy’ of ‘An Oak Tree’. The Australian National Gallery has the original, although to get it through customs, Craig-Martin had to admit it wasn’t actually an oak tree at all, but a glass of water. It is under such tutelage and Serota’s patronage that Turner prize art has flourished.

Even failing to win can make a career. Tracey Emin just missed out on the prize for her unmade bed, though she was subsequently chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale with neon messages and attempts to draw her lady parts. The wealth this brought turned her — for tax reasons — into a fiscal Tory. She even donated a neon saying ‘More Passion’ to No. 10 Downing Street. She has become Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy, and a damehood surely beckons.

This year the shortlist offers Elizabeth Price’s 20-minute repetitive video showing an empty choir in a medieval church, the 1960s band the Shangri-Las and a fatal Woolworth’s fire. In Turner prize speak, this is an exploration of ‘our complex relationship to objects and consumer culture… through immersive virtual spaces’. Spartacus Chetwynd’s most memorable creation — other than her name — is some kindergarten performance art involving bells and glove puppets which allegedly ‘dissolves the boundary between spectator and participant’. Then there’s Luke Fowler’s mind-numbing 90-minutes of footage of the late R.D. Laing, which allegedly reveals ‘how the relationship between individuals and society changes through time’. Meanwhile, Paul Noble, the bookies’ choice, has overcome the disabling advantage of being able to draw by providing the conceptual art world with what the Turner jury described as ‘a dystopian world where people become turds and turds become people’. Indeed.

However, the good news this year is that at long last it’s the insiders who are on the run, and the outsiders who sense their day is coming. The Turner Prize has become a yawn, and there are whispers of criticism of Serota. Not that he is letting go. At 66, some think that it is time for him to retire gracefully. But Director of Tate (he eschews definite articles) is not going anywhere: in 2008 a grateful board of trustees gave him the unusual status of ‘permanent employee’.

Nevertheless, Director of Tate’s grip may be slipping. Will Gompertz, the BBC arts editor and previously the director of Tate Media, has breathlessly reported that many senior curators despise much of the art they have had to show. Too afraid to be named, they believed that museums, curators, auctioneers, collectors, dealers and artists were in a conspiracy — for financial reasons — to maintain the reputation of overrated brand-name artists.

Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery, has finally said that he is unimpressed by conceptual and performance art. Dave Hickey, a famous American art critic, has quit a world he has called calcified, self-reverential and a hostage to collectors. And last week, Jackie Wullschläger, the Financial Times art critic, spoke out against the theory-driven jargon that legitimised everything and called for independent minds to seek out original, important and neglected art which does not require translators.

I have done my bit with a satirical crime novel about a Russian oligarch wreaking a bloody revenge on curators, critics, dealers and other pillars of the art world who have cheated him. It is a comic novel, but its subject is serious. People are finally admitting — and saying — that the Oak Tree is half empty.

Killing the Emperors was published this week by Allison & Busby.

More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us now.

  • Leo Goatley

    Originality is born in a maelstrom of anarchy, in the iconoclastic rootless youth, immune to the fear of convention and the establishment. And yet, there is the paradox that talent needs to be focused and nurtured in method and discipline. It is the old
    Nietzschean idea developed in ‘The Birth of Tragedy’[1] of interface between Apollonian and Dionysian forces. The marriage of these disparate forces is necessary, with the Dionysian pulse essential to prevent Apollonian influences in science and art from becoming cold and lifeless.

    • James R

      I couldn’t have put it better myself,Leo.

    • Derwoo

      That’s bolleaux!

      • http://rationbaby.wordpress.com/ valedictorian16

        I’m sayin’ not so, by half!

  • http://www.facebook.com/patrick.g.cox Patrick G Cox

    I have often thought that the great Turner himself, must have been rolling in his grave over having his name on a prize awarded for the garbage that this clique have peddled as ‘art’ for far too long. I still think the ultimate comment on it was the cleaning lady who tidied Tracey Emin’s unmade bed and set the mess she claimed was ‘art’ into neatness said far more than the entire ‘art establishment’s’ hand-wringing and agonising over glasses of water on shelves whatever the artist claims it is in his imagination.

    • Sarah

      Actually a woman came to the gallery with cleaning materials intending to tidy it, but was of course prevented from doing so.

  • Kennybhoy

    Cracking article Miss Dudley Edwards!

    Note to Speccie High Heid Yins. We need more like this please! :-)

  • Matthew Whitehouse

    Damien Hirst has had some very good exhibits. BUT, also saying that his massive wall of coloured dots is art (of which he didnt even complete, his “Aides” did) is a total vindication of our (us normal people) disillusionment. In Damien’s own words – “An artist doesn’t need talent or skill, just an imagination”. Well, we’re all artists then!

    • Hugh

      I think that’s a fair enough comment. It just doesn’t strike me that he, Tracey Emin or the others you come across, are actually particularly imaginative. If there’s no skill involved then it has to be a very powerful concept for the art to impress, which in turn requires a fairly brilliant mind. With the best will in the world, most modern artists when interviewed don’t come across as possessing one.

  • Matthew Whitehouse

    Damien Hirst has had some very good exhibits. BUT, also saying that his massive wall of coloured dots is art (of which he didnt even complete, his “Aides” did) is a total vindication of our (us normal people) disillusionment. In Damien’s own words – “An artist doesn’t need talent or skill, just an imagination”. Well, we’re all artists then!

  • John King

    Regrettably, to the man in the street the antics of the art avant garde fully justify removing the arts from the curriculum in our schools. Serota and his ilk are largely to blame. He should be removed from his post not awarded ‘lifetime employee’ status for misuse of public funds. In these dark days of triple dip recession such flagrant waste is extremely distasteful.

  • kwestion.all

    The “Turner Prize” is a misnomer, since none of the exhibits bear any relationship to the sort of work created by Turner himself. A better title, in my view, should be the “Duchamp Prize” after Marcel Duchamp, whose inverted urinal/Sculpture was a foretaste of the sort of crap that turns up in this and other such “contemporary art” events. Not that it will cause me to want to turn up, but at least it will be more honest.

  • Douglas Hall

    It should not be thought that every museum of modern art in the country follows the Serota way. As the (first) Keeper of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art from 1961 to 1986, I never tried to sell that line to my Trustees, as I did not believe in it myself. Will Gompertz did a splendid job exposing the cracks in the foundations of the Serota edifice, but the real mystery remains how the tendency has achieved such universal support up to now in the modern art world. Just what is the secret?
    Douglas Hall

Can't find your Web ID? Click here