Why is the Turner prize failing to engage with politics?

With the arts under pressure, the Turner should bring audiences into contact with work that reflects the political realities of our times. Instead, it’s playing it safe

Let’s begin with the inherent art prize problem. If, after the succession of 20th-century avant gardes, anything can be considered contemporary art, but there are no universally agreed criteria by which such work might be objectively assessed, how can prizes for the so‑called “best” in the field justify their claims?

In truth, they can’t. One person’s genius is always another’s joker, and prizewinners almost always reveal more about the appointed judges’ sensibilities than anything else. The Turner, which will be awarded on 5 December, is no exception. But despite Tate’s rhetoric, the “best of British” isn’t what the prize is really about. Its true value lies in the Turner’s existence as a public institution that each year opens up and reintroduces the field of contemporary art to the nation. At least, that’s how it is now. It wasn’t always the case.

The history of the prize is best seen as a play of two acts, divided by the intervallic year of 1990, in which no award was given. Lacking a sense of purpose or identity, the pre-90s Turner (inaugurated in 1984, with Malcolm Morley winning) was an insular, inconsequential and increasingly directionless affair. Bizarrely, Nicholas Serota was “commended” in 1986 for refurbishing the Whitechapel Gallery, and by the decade’s end the prize found itself without funding and a public who cared.

Then the 90s arrived, which saw Charles Saatchi’s speculative buying sprees, the rise of the YBAs, Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia, and TV’s populist race to the bottom, jump-started by Channel 4, the award’s funder and ceremony broadcaster. These factors led to the prize’s reemergence and rebranding. What once was moribund became a brash and bratty celebration of “Brit Art”: that hollow brand of artworks seemingly made for mass media consumption or the indignation of curtain twitchers nationwide.

True, people began to talk about the Turner in the 90s. But, from cabdrivers to civil servants, a deep suspicion of fakery and pretension pervaded, helped in no small part by the media’s interest in the snarling, juvenile narcissism of artists such as Damien Hirst, and nominees who appeared to be enthralled by the vacuous exclusivity of celebrity, such as Sam Taylor-Johnson, then Taylor-Wood. Although in fact a large proportion of the 90s art world was concerned with internationalism, identity politics, socially engaged practices, combating racism and dealing with the legacy of Aids, the Brit Art caricature (part construct, part drawn from Tatler’s society pages) spurned all that in favour of lairy, coke-fuelled nights in London’s Groucho club.

So how can today’s Turner cut through the surface distraction to generate more pertinent and in‑depth social, cultural and personal debates? The simple answer is to be found in politics.

Michael Dean’s United Kingdom Poverty Line installation.
Michael Dean’s United Kingdom Poverty Line installation. Photograph: Joe Humphrys, ©Tate

Drastic cuts to public funding have led to the demolition of social housing, and to the closure of public libraries, galleries and museums – Walsall’s New Art Gallery looks set to become the next victim. In higher education, as if the 2012 hiking of tuition fees wasn’t enough, there has been a dissolution of provisions for working-class students via cuts to widening participation programmes, foundation courses and outreach projects. The arts and humanities are disappearing as educational options: most recently the preparatory step of A‑level art history was placed under threat.

Such measures have signalled the start of an era in which only those activities guaranteed to bring significant economic returns are deemed valuable. Politicians from Tory MPs to Barack Obama have all sung parochial variations on the same theme: the arts and humanities are, in essence, an indulgence.

And so, in a world where opportunities and spaces to learn about, think through, or discuss or anything complex are being erased, the Turner prize, almost by default, has entered its third phase as an important public British institution. Since the 1960s – fuelled by the civil rights movement, reactions to the Vietnam war and second-wave feminism – contemporary art has become an intrinsically politicised, critical medium through which everything, from culture to capitalism and the medium itself could be questioned and deconstructed. What the Turner prize represents, then, is a yearly induction into a field that can give space to politics, economics, sociology, philosophy, gender studies, rhetoric, information technology and all other disciplines of critical thinking; a field beyond the kooky, apolitical populism of Grayson Perry or the Tory individualism of Tracey Emin. At a time when reductive thinking, lies, racism and sexism are increasingly prevalent what could be a more vital way to confront and resist them?

This year’s Turner debate has, however, seemed a rather contained and distracted affair. Broadsheet and tabloid criticism has been dutiful at best, the result, no doubt, of attention being devoted to cataclysmic world events. But perhaps this also has something to do with the strangely hermetic worlds Turner’s 2016 artists inhabit.

Morgan Quaintance in front of Hamilton’s Project for a Door.
Morgan Quaintance in front of Hamilton’s Project for a Door. Photograph: PR

Of this year’s four nominees, only Michael Dean’s installation deals with our current sociocultural and political situation. While not the most robust or sophisticated of political interventions, his pile of pennies just one penny shy of the UK poverty line (titled: United Kingdom poverty line for two adults and two children: twenty thousand four hundred and thirty six pounds sterling as published on 1st September 2016) at least evokes and draws attention to the financial difficulties faced by many families today. On the other hand, the works of Helen Marten, Anthea Hamilton and Josephine Pryde turn away from the world to plumb more rarefied and cryptic depths.

Of course artists are under no obligation to make politicised art, or art that explores contemporary social, cultural or economic events. However, as the Turner enters its third phase – after a financial crisis, in an austerity-riven present – the prize highlights a failure to engage with what is happening now.

Not that this lack of reflection says anything about the quality of the work by this year’s nominees. But it does suggest their lack of suitability for a prize whose national significance and character have changed. The Tate has been slow to respond to these changes, and it is the Turner judges who have been remiss in their duty to ensure the prize brings wide audiences into contact with politically alert work this year. (It is also remiss of the Tate to charge an entrance fee of £12). There is plenty of political commentary happening elsewhere in the art world – such work should be allowed to feature on the Turner platform alongside that with a more oblique register.

Next year the Turner judges should heed the failings of 2016 and seek out pieces that deal with our present situation. That is what will keep the Turner vital as an institution that can provide a national platform to the kind of progressive ideas and political debates that struggle to be heard at other times of the year; and it is what will ensure the real winners of the Turner prize continue to be the British public.

• The Turner Prize: 2016: The Nominees is presented by Morgan Quaintance on BBC4 at 9.30pm on 5 December.

Morgan Quaintance

The GuardianTramp

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