Modern Art Suffers from Too Many Prizes and Too Much Spectacle. the Turner Works for the Tate, but It's Not Such a Good Deal for the Artists

By Macgregor, Elizabeth A. | New Statesman (1996), November 28, 1997 | Go to article overview

Modern Art Suffers from Too Many Prizes and Too Much Spectacle. the Turner Works for the Tate, but It's Not Such a Good Deal for the Artists


Macgregor, Elizabeth A., New Statesman (1996)


Each year, it's the same: headlines, hype and outraged attacks on contemporary art. The exhibition of the shortlisted artists for the Turner Prize sets off the annual ritual of damning the art, the artists, the judges and the Tate Gallery. So who really benefits: the public, the Tate, the sponsor or the artists?

What we see at Turner Prize time is the traditional British sport of denigrating success and humiliating artists. Van Gogh famously died unrecognised and penniless, and throughout this century we have had our own catalogue of artists reviled by their contemporaries: Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore through to Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst. In 1928 the Tate Gallery itself rejected a gift of a painting by Matisse, already recognised as one of the great modern artists.

Despite the unrestrained media ridicule in Britain, galleries and critics abroad are more interested than they have ever been in the work of young British artists. The "YBAs" are inundated with requests for exhibitions worldwide. They feature regularly in lifestyle magazines, from Elle to The Face. Britart is as recognisable a phenomenon as Britpop.

The British public, too, seems to have less problem with contemporary art than the press does. Gallery curators find that young people in particular have no difficulties with the visual language and range of materials that artists use today. All our contemporary galleries offer a wide range and variety of education programmes, for which demand far outstrips supply, and which have become a model that many of our European colleagues seek to emulate. Tony Blair, who is supposed to have a special feel for popular sentiment, has put the art of the nineties into Downing Street, replacing the nostalgic cricketing prints of his predecessor. Britain can no longer be caricatured as the land of heritage-seeking nostalgia.

We should not, though, underestimate the continuing difficulties of persuading people to visit an exhibition and form their own opinions. The Turner Prize has achieved that, in huge numbers. And any visitor to the exhibition will find public response is far from uniformly negative.

Indeed, the very newspapers that profess to be "outraged" are the ones whose coverage fuels public curiosity. This is what makes the Turner so important to the Tate. No other exhibition attracts so many column inches, such a vital factor in securing sponsorship. Would Bank-side, the Tate's proposed new Gallery of Modern Art, have been possible without the Turner Prize to raise the stakes?

So the prize certainly has value for the public and the Tate. And since last year, when Channel 4 announced its renewed commitment to the prize with a promise of a further two years' funding, there can be no doubt of its benefits to the sponsor.

But what about the artists? Here I am not so sure. Perhaps the most invidious aspect of the prize is that the sponsor's [pounds]20,000 prize money goes only to the winner. All the shortlisted artists, it is argued, benefit from the publicity, and the Tate has helped in recent years by allocating more space to each. But publicity doesn't pay the bills. The stereotype of artists getting rich on conning the public is very far from the truth. Only a handful make a living from selling their work.

Nor should anyone underestimate the negative effects for an artist of being put in the full glare of the media spotlight when announced as a Turner nominee. Although many younger artists are well used to playing media games, many more are deeply upset by ill-informed derision. One prominent artist, known for reticence rather than flamboyance, has admitted that he took months to recover from the trauma. …

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