Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true. This miserabilist's charter came to mind at Tate Britain this week. For the 2010 Turner prize has righted the wrongs of many years and, in theory at least, accomplished everything one could reasonably hope for, and yet it remains imperfect.

This year's shortlist, for instance, is not sensational, modish, tendentious or obscure. The judges have not broken any unspoken rules. None is in charge of a gallery where a shortlisted show took place; none has a professional relationship, as far as I know, with any of the artists. There are no obvious conflicts of interest.

Nor does it strain credulity to imagine that the judges might actually have seen the art in person, as opposed to viewing the works on video or slide. The shortlisted shows were happening here in Britain, not in Eindhoven or Texas, as in years gone by. It is even possible that the public nominations were for once heeded, rather than binned. For some of the shows – Dexter Dalwood at Tate St Ives, Angela de la Cruz at Camden Arts Centre – were both popular and critically praised.

And while some proportion of these facts may have been true in the past, what is so unusual this time round is that we too can see (or hear, in Susan Philipsz's case) the shortlisted art in Tate Britain. Instead of four tranches of new or different works by the shortlisted artists, we have the opportunity to experience a good proportion of the art selected by the judges. We are in their position.

Which is why it pains me to report that this is not the best of shows, however much one might respect both artists and judges. It is beautifully displayed, concise, undoubtedly representative, indubitably serious. But it falls fairly short of exhilarating.

Take Dexter Dalwood, currently tipped as favourite by William Hill. Dalwood is a painter of strength and wit; his pictures touch upon the limits of the imagination.

In the past he has painted interiors that exist, or must once have existed, but were necessarily imagined – Che Guevara's mountain hideout, Jimi Hendrix's last resting place, the Queen's bedroom (with a single-bar heater). The protagonists are always absent, but their presence evoked in the image.

If that were all, Dalwood would not be the modern history painter he is. The Bay of Pigs, the Brighton bomb and Greenham Common have all been portrayed in recent works constructed like out-of-kilter collages full of abrupt stylistic disjunctures. Death of David Kelly has a pale moon rocking in a midnight-blue sky, uninflected as a child might paint it, sadness in its stark simplicity. By contrast, the brown earth below is an open wound of ab-ex brushstrokes: a painfully adult enigma.

In White Flag, Jasper Johns's eponymous white painting of the stars-and-stripes flag appears solid, forming the wall of a compound, its shattered floor strewn with the hookah pipe and Arab slippers from one of Delacroix's Arabic paintings. Every motif in Dalwood's picture acquires a double meaning – eastern-western – by juxtaposition, clinched by the political pun of that title.

But though there are trenchant concepts here, this is by no means the best of Dalwood's recent work. I remember a painting about the execution of the Ceausescus that sampled Baselitz and Goya to terrifying effect, and none of these pictures has anything like that power. Ipso facto, I should stop wishing to see only the shortlisted works.

Another moral easily drawn from this show is that not everything survives Tate Britain. Those who heard the recording of Susan Philipsz's clear, sweet voice singing that melancholy ballad "Lowlands Away" beneath the George V bridge during this year's Glasgow international art festival knows that it drifted out across the water to poignant effect, its lament for a drowned lover now seeming to commemorate all those who drowned themselves there in the Clyde.

These recitals are by definition site-specific. The 16th-century ballads currently issuing from discreet speakers around the City of London put you on the spot, make you mindful of the Shakespearean past. If Philipsz is an artist at all, it is by this fine application of sound to place. At Tate Britain her work dwindles into a pleasant recording.

The Otolith Group – aka Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar – has turned its gallery into a cross between an arthouse cinema and a seminar room, complete with desklights and books.

On screen you can watch Otolith III, a film initially inspired by one that was never made, Satyajit Ray's 1967 The Alien. The characters from that film are now looking for people to play them, literally searching the streets, alternately hopeful and frustrated; precisely the feelings engendered in the viewer, especially one unfamiliar with The Alien, let alone the critical accretions surrounding its legend.

More compelling by far is Chris Marker's 13-part television series on Ancient Greece. The Owl's Legacy (1989) featured George Steiner, Elia Kazan, Cornelius Castoriadis and many others offering violently contrasting views on Greek culture, from democracy, mythology and music to philosophy and sex. The Otolith Group's contribution is to screen the series on 13 sets simultaneously: emphasising the brilliance of its montages as a montage.But that is secondary compared to the challenge issued to British television executives to broadcast this stupendous series again now.

The remaining contender, Angela de la Cruz, makes sculptures out of paintings, monochrome canvases that are made to behave like real people. Weary, slack, crumpled, slumped, coming apart at the seams, they are stretched past all endurance. A yellow canvas hangs as if over a hooded body, irresistibly proposing the torture victims of Abu Ghraib. Other forms are bent double, battered, collapsed on the floor, anthropomorphism made manifest.

This is a perfectly good selection of de la Cruz's work. She deserves to win as much as Dalwood, but certainly no more than so many other artists showing during the Turner year: for instance Fiona Tan, Willie Doherty, David Shrigley, Katie Paterson, Marcus Coates, Kutlug Ataman, Tacita Dean, Luke Fowler, Rosalind Nashashibi, in no particular order. Which reminds one that this show only represents the taste of five judges, first to last, and nothing more this year – thankfully not the zeitgeist, the market, or the politics of the art world, but nor its passion and excitement.


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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