Why Tracey Emin Isn't Smiling: Peter Watson Reveals That, Weary of Pickled Sheep and Unmade Beds, Art World Insiders Are Plotting to End Bad Aesthetic Times and Change the Turner Prize

By Watson, Peter | New Statesman (1996), February 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

Why Tracey Emin Isn't Smiling: Peter Watson Reveals That, Weary of Pickled Sheep and Unmade Beds, Art World Insiders Are Plotting to End Bad Aesthetic Times and Change the Turner Prize


Watson, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


Last year, attending a lecture at the National Gallery in London, I witnessed the most elegant and witty putdown of contemporary art I have yet encountered. Colin Wiggins, the gallery's curator of painting, spent almost an hour talking about a handful of masterpieces by Pierre Bonnard, each of which features an unmade bed.

When Bonnard went away for the weekend to stay with his posh friends, his wife--much shyer, less socially accomplished -- would put up at a nearby hotel where he would join her for the night. This way, the couple could make love to their hearts' content. Their passion played havoc with the sheets but, as Wiggins showed, the painter was taken with the mess -- and the colour, shadows and sfumato of Bonnard's beds were all breathtaking: they shimmered like Monet's waterlilies, or Van Gogh's cornfields, but had that added dimension of intimacy. Wiggins wasn't so vulgar as to mention Tracey Emin, but he didn't need to. She is not fit to keep such company.

The lecture came back to me the other day as I toured the opening of the Andy Warhol exhibition at Tate Modem. Warhol and Emin have this much in common: they are both sphinxes without a secret. Like Warhol, Emin knows how to smile and say as little as possible, hoping -- like him -- that silence will be taken for depth, for reflection, for wit, for sensibility, rather than for what it actually is: emptiness.

But I am beginning to think this approach is not going to work for much longer. The bad aesthetic times we have endured in Britain for too long may finally becoming to an end--and I don't say that because of Ivan Massow's denunciation of conceptual art in the NS 21 January issue. I say so because, without knowing it, and despite being fired as chairman by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Massow has some very powerful allies within the Tate.

Yes, that's right. More than one senior figure in the Tate establishment has confided to me in the past weeks that he/she was appalled by this year's Turner Prize shenanigans and hopes that they will never be repeated. The banalities of contemporary art, they feel, have gone far enough. (And they, in this case, belong to both sexes and are of different nationalities.) In particular, the work of this year's prizewinner, Martin Creed -- an installation with light bulbs switching on and off--was criticised as "hopelessly stillborn". Another Tate "insider" told me that "for the moment, photography is more interesting than contemporary painting".

I'm a bit surprised that all this has not come out before, as the criticisms were made to me at the museum's party to celebrate its new exhibition. Held at Billingsgate fish market, the event was attended by tous les grands poissons d'art -- and many of them were eager to share their exasperation at the status quo.

Even more important, I understand that preliminary moves are afoot to reconceive the prize. However much Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, may be identified with contemporary art in some people's eyes, and however firmly he rules the roost at the Tate, he is not a stubborn man and, as I read it, three possible changes are contemplated. One is to make the prize biennial, allowing more time for good work to emerge, and making the award ceremony less routine. A second possibility is to lift the age limit that requires artists to be aged 40 or younger; and a third is to remove the embargo on non-British artists.

The third change would rather remove the point of the prize, but the other two sound like sensible, positive steps. The harsh truth is that a prize designed to encourage young British artists has failed. It has not failed in marketing or media terms, where it has been a resounding success, but that has disguised its failure in more important ways: intellectually and aesthetically.

The prize as currently conceived has helped direct artists' attention to early glory, by whatever outrageous device, rather than encourage talented people to evolve and build up a solid body of work, and with it a well-earned reputation. …

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Why Tracey Emin Isn't Smiling: Peter Watson Reveals That, Weary of Pickled Sheep and Unmade Beds, Art World Insiders Are Plotting to End Bad Aesthetic Times and Change the Turner Prize
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