Turner prize: Susan Philipsz may be a worthy winner, but don't call her a sound artist | Jonathan Jones

'Sound art' doesn't really exist. One of the great things about the Turner prize is that it rewards work in many different forms

It helps if a Turner prize winner can be summarised in a headline, and this year the buzz is all about Susan Philipsz being a "sound artist". There's just one problem. She isn't.

It's remarkable that, after so many years of Turner controversies, reports on the prize still tend to separate contemporary practitioners into categories and media – "video artist"; "photo-based artist"; now "sound artist". Heck, even the Stuckists understand today's art better than this. They protest against the broad category of post-Duchampian art in which idea is prior to craft.

As it happens, Marcel Duchamp himself was one of the first artists to incorporate sound into his work in his 1916 readymade With Hidden Noise, a ball of twine between two brass plates that rattles when it is shaken. Yet this does not mean he invented something called "sound art".

Both this and Philipsz's Lowlands, which won her the Turner, are instances of the same insight: art begins with the idea of art. The tendency of artistic life since Duchamp – in fact, since Michelangelo – is towards a unified, abstract phenomenon called "art", while Duchamp's revolution was to assert that this can include anything the (self-nominated) artist chooses. A comb; an old song.

All of which is to say that "sound art" doesn't really exist as such. If you were describing its history you might include, say, Robert Morris's Box with the Sound of its Own Making (1961), you could also namecheck the Futurists' "Art of Noises", premiered at the Coliseum in London in the early 20th century. You might also take in the extraordinary Duchampian experiments of John Cage, and then extend into any number of recent artists who have played with sound, from Rirkrit Tiravanija to Christian Marclay. But such a history would be a farrago, as is clear in the case of Marclay, who is now best known for his video work The Clock. Serious modern art moves freely between different strategies and media.

That said, Susan Philipsz does look a bit of a specialist. I have said she is not a sound artist because that is what I want to believe. A worthy Turner winner should be simply an artist – no more, no less. But the Turner is about headlines and "sound art" does have a good ring to it. So does the image of an empty room with a woman's voice. The value of simplicity is that it gets across, via the poetry of tabloid news, the familiar tune about the avant garde that is a century old and still so seductive.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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