The Guardian view on the Turner prize: too worthy for its own good? | Editorial

The competition was set up to be populist. In its current introspective mood, though, it risks pushing away the public

The Turner prize this year is not about celebrating, or creating, big names in the British art scene. Instead, the shortlist exhibition, which opened at the Herbert gallery, Coventry, last week, is devoted to collectives – most of which pursue social benefits, whether drawing attention to environmental issues in food production, or working with neurodiverse people to create art.

The value of these aims is clear. But one might well ask, what has all this to do with a prize that, since its foundation in 1984, has brought to public attention some of Britain’s most important individual artists, among them Rachel Whiteread, Steve McQueen and Lubaina Himid?

The Turner prize has been in a state of self-questioning for several years. In 2019, the shortlisted artists rejected the notion of competition and declared themselves a single collective, essentially forcing the judges to share the prize between them. The following year, in the midst of the pandemic, the Tate transformed the prize into a series of bursaries; this year’s judges are ignoring the idea of the single creator. The traditional criteria for judging the prize – supposedly awarded for the best exhibition put on in the preceding year by a UK-based artist – seem to be out of the window.

Prize culture is peculiar. It is obvious that the idea of choosing the “best” in any aesthetic field, whether exhibition-making, the novel, or architecture, is in some senses arbitrary, or at least highly contestable. On the other hand, competitions in art have been with us for a very long time, at least since the playwrights of Athens competed against each other in the Great Dionysia, and even during the early days of the modern Olympics, with its events for literature, art, music and architecture.

The search for “the best” is a part of the ongoing process of canon formation – a difficult, imperfect, constantly-to-be-revised mechanism, yet one that’s required to winnow down the mass of cultural production to manageable proportions over the long term.

In the short term, competitions are also a pragmatic means of introducing a popular audience to a cultural object selected by experts because of its quality rather than purely its market appeal – from the Palme d’Or winner, say, to the winner of the TS Eliot poetry prize. The Turner was set up in the wake of the Booker prize to introduce a broad British public to the best of contemporary art. It was intended to be populist.

The prize seems to be ditching that old pragmatism in favour of idealism. But the undoubted vulgarity of prizes – the bookmakers’ odds, the TV coverage, the sometimes derisive articles in the tabloid press, the speculation – is precisely what has made the Turner prize, since the 1980s, an important entry point into contemporary art for an audience beyond those who are already aficionados.

The current mood at the Turner prize may be laudable in itself. But the institution risks losing currency if it becomes too po-faced and tidies away the fun, chaos and scandal that once enlivened it.



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