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Making sense of art history
Making sense of art history

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2 The Turner Prize: an annual farce or a celebration of creativity?

The Turner Prize is really the artistic equivalent of the Emperor's new clothes – incomprehensible rubbish worshipped by a narrow and increasingly out-of-touch clique.

(Tate Britain website, 2006)

Ever since its foundation in 1984, the Turner Prize has been controversial; the quote above from The Daily Mail is typical of the type of criticism it attracts. In 1993 there was even an ‘Anti-Turner Prize’. It awarded £40,000 (twice as much as was awarded to that year's Turner Prize winner) to Rachel Whiteread (see Plate 6) for producing the ‘worst’ body of work that year. The money was nailed to a wooden frame and secured to the railings outside the Tate Gallery. Whiteread was allowed thirty minutes to accept it or see it burnt; she accepted the money but immediately gave it away to ten artists in financial need and to the housing charity Shelter.

Plate 6

Rachel Whiteread, House, 1993. (© The artist. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Tate Photography.)

So why is the Turner Prize so controversial? As you work through this course you'll be encouraged to think about this question and by the end you should have reached some well-informed conclusions about why Turner Prize-related art is often less than enthusiastically received. By now you might be wondering whether the Turner Prize is worth studying at all, bearing in mind the negativity that surrounds it. Rest assured, the prize does have its fans. For example, art critic Iain Gale asserts that while:

… art prizes abound – all might learn from the Turner. It is a benchmark. If it didn't exist we would have to invent it. It stimulates debate, it engages and provokes. We need such catalysts. Love it or loathe it, the Turner has gradually put contemporary art within the public domain.

(Gale, Scotland on Sunday, 2001)

The Turner Prize's potential to stimulate debate, engage and provoke is one of the reasons why we have chosen to focus on it. We will continue by exploring some reactions prompted by the Turner Prize. The Tate Gallery, which hosts the Turner Prize exhibition, encourages the general public to record their comments on the nominated art works both in a special ‘comments room’ at the gallery and in a ‘Post Your Comment’ section on the Turner Prize website. The following comments were posted by the public in response to the 2004 Turner Prize shortlist.

Comments from the ‘Post a Comment’ section of the 2004 Turner Prize website

Art. What Art?

The standard shown this year is terrible. I can't recall a poorer shortlist.

‘There is simply no talent on show. The only difference between the average person in the street and previous artists whom have won this prize is publicity. It's that simple.’

Damn Right!!

‘I agree with this comment as I too feel that according to this year's shortlist anyone could be considered an artist not due to artistic talent but due to random and meaningless, abstract work … ’

Great comments! Art in the Turner Prize does seem to revolve around fame and celebrity. When are people going to realise that art is about integrity and talent or ability, and if you don't have that you don't have anything!

‘I completely agree. Everyone just seems to invent all sorts of meaningful explanations for things that do not have any meaning whatsoever. I really enjoyed the comments room – it was enthralling.’

(Tate Britain website, 2005)

Perhaps the most frequently repeated complaint in these comments was that the artists creating these art works were not showing any talent or artistic ability. Many of the comments also questioned whether the shortlisted works were actually art at all. You've touched upon this issue already and you will revisit it again later.

It's significant that several of the comments mention not being able to understand the works featured in the 2004 shortlist. Some people fear there may be a hidden meaning that they're not getting and that by saying they do not understand a work, they'll appear foolish. After the warehouse fire, a report in The Times commented that:

The visual arts make the British nervous. We don't know what we are looking at and we don't know how to look.

(Winterson, The Times, 2004)

In this course, you'll learn that the analysis and interpretation of contemporary art isn't a process of uncovering a mysterious hidden meaning. Rather, it involves the spectator (the term used in this course to describe a viewer of an art work) performing a step-by-step examination of the work in a very similar way to the examination of any other text (for example, a haiku poem). As you work through this course you'll build on the skills that you've already gained to help you find a way of approaching contemporary art and writing well argued accounts of art works. This will involve using all four points of the Study Diamond to:

  1. find a framework for analysing art texts

  2. better understand some of the reactions to art works shortlisted for the Turner Prize.

In the next section, you'll start work on point 1 above, using the effects point of the Study Diamond to help you begin interpreting some Turner Prize-related art works.