By Hubbard, Sue
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 136, No. 4843
Being asked to write about the Turner Prize is a bit of a poisoned chalice. To criticise Britain's biggest prize for modern art is to risk aligning oneself with the Daily Mail's "call that art?" brigade. To defend it, on the other hand, is to endorse the shallow theoretical tosh that is served up to give the prize its supposed gravitas. With the shortlist for 2007 due to be announced in the coming week, it's that time of year again, and the media machine is cranking into action. The Turner has become a triumph of publicity over substance; like contestants in the Big Brother house, it has become famous simply for being famous.
This year, the awards ceremony will be held in Liverpool for the first time, to coincide with the city's European Capital of Culture celebrations for 2007-2008. It is hoped that the new location will give the tired prize a fillip by association. Perhaps the idea is also to escape the criticism that the Turner is stitched up by the metropolitan art mafia--though one suspects that they will all simply be despatched from the capital to Lime Street, with the principle of public input remaining just a charade. Being a judge has its own problems: last year, the journalist and jury member Lynn Barber revealed her misgivings about both the quality of the work and the judging process. And when that high priest of art criticism, the writer Robert Hughes, was asked if he would ever consider being a judge, his succinct "I'd rather fuck newts underwater" said all there was to say about his attitude to the prize (it might also have marked him out as a latecomer to the realms of performance art).
The problem with the Turner is embedded in its rules, which state that no artist can be nominated twice, and that the prize must go to an artist under the age of 50. According to the website for Channel 4, the former sponsor of the prize, the main criteria for judging are "freshness and originality". This raises the question: Are freshness and originality virtues in their own right? Or do they need to be put to some good use? And why only artists under 50? Do the brain cells rot and ideas stop flowing on one's 50th birthday? The truth is that the Turner Prize, and conceptual art in general, have become means for getting the visual arts into the news pages. Elephant dung, transvestite potters in pretty party dresses and sheds that turn into boats provide good copy for journalists and, therefore, encourage sponsors and ensure continued funding for the organiser of the prize, the Tate.
As such, judges have been hand-picked because they won't rock the boat or challenge the bland consensus (the choice of Barber being an accidental exception). Looking back over some of the winners, who include Martin Creed, Simon Starling, Gillian Wearing and Steve McQueen, one wonders if this rather dreary list really represents the best British art of its day. …