Michael Gove's anti-Turner prize tweets are childish

The former education secretary has dubbed the work of Turner prize winner Helen Marten ‘modish crap’ – and championed his own blinkered version of post-Brexit art history

Oh, it quite takes one back to the good old days when Kim Howells, once upon a time Labour arts minister, remarked of the 2002 Turner prize shortlist that it was “cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit”. That verdict was delivered, quaintly, via a comment card pinned to the wall of the Tate, back when Britain was conjoined to the continent, the planet was a welter of primordial slime, and Twitter had not yet been invented. At least Howells’ condemnation had a certain ring to it.

On the other hand, Michael Gove’s tweet about this year’s prize (won by Helen Marten on Monday night) is boundlessly oafish. So much so that it could almost have been designed to stir up a little personal publicity for a man about whom many British people had actually, and blissfully, forgotten – that sweet oblivion the merest sliver of silver lurking beneath the dark cloud of late 2016.

#Turnerprize2016 - congratulations to Helen Martin but #honestly is this = to Turner, Ruskin, even Holman Hunt - of course not #modishcrap

— Michael Gove (@michaelgove) December 5, 2016

Let us wearily count the ways that his little outburst is just very silly. First off, Gove essentially lost authority the second he misspelled the name of his target. That’s Helen Marten, Michael, not Martin. Maybe he reckons orthography to be the domain of experts – but hang on, wasn’t he bossily all about spelling and grammar a minute ago? Second, he #honestly has no idea how to use a hashtag. Third, do we think that Gove, transported back to the early years of the 19th century, would have been one of those enlightened people who championed JMW Turner, or would he, do we think, have been somewhat more likely to have been bewildered by the controversial painter’s strikingly novel looseness of form and “crude blotches”, to quote fellow artist Benjamin West?

Procession of Boats with Distant Smoke, Venice, c 1845, by JMW Turner.
Procession of Boats with Distant Smoke, Venice, c 1845, by JMW Turner. Photograph: Tate Britain/PA

Fourth, does he actually imagine that the great critic John Ruskin is better remembered for his competent drawings and watercolours than his writing? Fifth, let’s all take a moment to bathe in the glories of “even” William Holman Hunt, the most enjoyable lurid of the pre-Raphaelite painters, who depicted Jesus in his painting The Light of the World apparently in nocturnal search of the outside privy. Sixth, a round of applause for #modishcrap, which would actually be a reasonable title for a band, or a slender volume of memoirs. (I can’t imagine whose.) A further, shudder-making thought: are Turner, Ruskin and “even” Holman Hunt now to be considered the acceptable face of red, white and blue, post-Brexit art history? Let’s bloody hope not, however great these great men were.

In a further ill-advised tweet, this one addressed to writer and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer and former arts minister Ed Vaizey, Gove opined that the Turner prize “celebrates ugliness, nihilism and narcissism – the tragic emptiness of now”. If Gove is pacing the ramparts in search of narcissism and emptiness, he need look no further than his own childish, prejudiced ejaculations, unfettered by reasoned argument or any hint of real engagement in the matter before him. He should know better, but this is precisely the kind of crap, modish or otherwise, that we have come to expect from him.


Charlotte Higgins

The GuardianTramp

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