'Good for them!' – subverting the Turner prize is what artists are meant to do

Losers have sulked and even attacked people with gladioli. But the four shortlisted artists’ decision to share this year’s winnings could be the upset to end them all

Personally, I’m happy that the four artists shortlisted for this year’s Turner prize decided to ask the judges to view them as a collective and not pick a winner. Subverting the game is something artists are supposed to do. If it had been the judges who had been unable to award the prize, I would have been a lot less sanguine. But it is another thing entirely for an artist on the shortlist to split the prize – as Helen Marten did in 2016, sharing her winnings for both the Turner and that year’s Hepworth prize with fellow nominees. She was following the lead of Theaster Gates, who divided the £40,000 Artes Mundi prize among his fellow shortlisted artists in 2015. “Let’s split this motherfucker,” he announced live on TV from the podium in Cardiff.

The Turner has always been premised on there being a winner. The award garners publicity, feeds the bookies and, apparently, generates discussion. It is all, supposedly, good for the climate in which contemporary art gets talked about. But artists whose works and attitudes have nothing to do with one another are often pitted against one another for no good reason.

Twenty years ago, when Tracey Emin failed to win, she said that there was only one real artist on the shortlist. That year, Steve McQueen won. As I recall, Jake and Dinos Chapman may have done something unseemly to Nicholas Serota with a bunch of gladioli at the prize-giving dinner when Grayson Perry beat them to the prize in 2003. Over the past 30 years, I have seen artists behave well, and collegially, and others who have sulked and taken not winning very personally. Now, all this seems absurdly quaint and a long time ago.

The work that won Steve McQueen the Turner prize in 1999.
The work that won Steve McQueen the Turner prize in 1999. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

Newspaper critics collude in the game. We are expected to pick winners and losers, and to judge – rather more publicly than the actual judges of the prize. Some have, in the past, behaved with worse grace than any artist. Handing out our confetti of five-, four-, three-, two- and one-star reviews, we pick winners and finger-wag losers. We are asked, in short, to deliver snappy verdicts.

This is the least interesting aspect of being a critic, or of being a viewer, let alone a reader of art criticism. What matters much more, in my view, is the journey an artist takes us on. Some take us nowhere much, or are unconvincing, in which case is sometimes necessary to say so, but it is much better to take the journey and see where we end up. This statement of solidarity and communality from the shortlisted artists is the beginning of, rather than an end to, the discussion of this year’s prize. Good for them.


Adrian Searle

The GuardianTramp

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