Turning Point: The Announcement of the 2008 Turner Prize Shortlist Has Prompted the Usual Carping. but Let's Not Forget That the Award Has Transformed the Way We See Contemporary Art in Britain, Writes Waldemar Januszczak
Januszczak, Waldemar, New Statesman (1996)
Do you remember how people used to hate modern art? I do. Because it wasn't very long ago. Actually, I can be more precise than that. People hated modern art until about 1991. Which was also the year that Channel 4 began broadcasting the Turner Prize. I know. I was there.
Last November, as the corks popped on Horse-ferry Road and Channel 4 celebrated 25 years of broadcasting, I had something to celebrate as well. Last year was the 30th anniversary of my becoming an art critic. My first review appeared in the Guardian on 1 April 1977. April Fool's Day. I mention it here not because I, too, want to have my back slapped--parties cloud your judgement-but because those 30 years of incessant art criticism qualify me perfectly to write about the impact of Channel 4 and the Turner Prize. I was around before either of them. I know what effect both of them have had. I remember vividly the situation before the two of them got together.
These days, of course, it's all so different. Not only do we take modern art in our stride, but we appear to have developed an unquenchable thirst for it. Queues of excited kidults wind their way around Tate Modern waiting for a go on the slides. Newspaper headlines blare out virtually every day how much this hedge-fundist has paid for that Damien Hirst. It's a favourite national topic. Yes, the odd grumpelstiltskin from Somerset can still be heard at Turner Prize time posing that tedious annual question: Is it art? But no one takes that kind of complaint too seriously any more. It's part of the theatre of the Turner Prize. It's not serious. It's not vicious. It's not like it used to be.
In the old days, I kept a box in which I collected all the rude letters I received referring me to the story of the emperor's new clothes. I called it my Emperor Box. It's one of Hans Christian Andersen's most quoted offerings. A king gets conned into believing that he's wearing a beautiful suit of clothing when, actually, there's nothing there--he's naked. But the king believes the conmen because he doesn't want to appear a fool. The same goes for his queen, his court and everyone else in the land. Everyone except for a little boy, who comes along to the procession, sees immediately that the king is bollock-naked, and begins shouting it out.
So many readers of my articles in support of modern art felt the need to remind me of this story that my Emperor Box quickly overflowed, and I ended up chucking it away in about 1985. Had I kept up the collection, there would now be no room in my house for me. What amused me most about this correspondence was the way that everyone who wrote seemed to believe that only they were clever or truthful enough to make the comparison between Andersen's story and the modern art con. Their hero was the little boy, with whom they identified fiercely. And whenever they encountered modern art that they did not like, or did not understand, they began frantically casting themselves in his role and insisting that all the other inhabitants of the land were being fooled.
When the rude letters first started arriving, I used to write back dutifully to their senders, pointing out a crucial flaw in their thinking. In Andersen's fairy tale, the people who believed that the king was clothed made up the majority, and the little boy was the exception. In the case of modern art, it was the other way around. In England, in 1985, the vast majority of people seemed convinced that modern art was a con. The news-papers agreed and kept up an incessant attack on any and all new art. Remember the Tate Gallery bricks? Critics like me, who were trying to write supportively about it, and who didn't believe that anyone was trying to con anyone else, were branded fools and charlatans, too, and subjected to a nasty barrage of mockery.
As I look back now on those days, it is hard to believe how much has changed. …