The Tate Britain Annual Narcissist’s Prize

The annual Turner Prize jamboree started at Tate Britain in 1984. I began demonstrating against it in 2000 with the ‘Stuckist’ painters, so named by Zeitgeist jack-pot winner Tracey Emin when she accused her then boyfriend, artists Billy Childish of being hopelessly ‘stuck’ because he still painted, using traditional paints.  Apart from joining a protest against sexually segregated lectures at UCL in 2013, attacking the Turner is the only street action I’ve taken since I was a student forty years ago.

Everything about it makes me angry; calling the prize after one of our greatest painters when the show utterly rejects any idea of formal paintings. It’s daft but hubricious exhibits, such as Fiona Banner’s wall sized text piece, ‘Arsewoman in Wonderland’ in 2002, which The Guardian assured us was art, but might also be porn, or Simon Starling in 2005 who won for sailing his garden shed down the River Rhine. At that point, graffiti artist Banksy stencilled ‘Mind the crap’ on the steps of the Tate, who called in emergency cleaners to remove it.

My anger against what Prince Charles has called, ‘The dreaded’ Turner Prize, is also about the idiocy of throwing out traditional aesthetics to display objects which no one can look at, such as Martin Creed’s 2001 light bulb flashing on and off in an empty room. The show is a slap in the face to the public who cannot possibly relate to the objects on show as they are entirely made for the vanity of the ‘artists’ and possibly their judges.

This week the ‘dreaded’ fiesta of folly rather desperately proved its Wokeness by questioning whether judging can now take place at all. The artists wrote a letter requesting that there would be no individual prize, none of that nasty competitiveness. As with the recent Booker Prize, the glittering Turner spoils of £40,000 have been divided among all four short listed contestants ‘to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity’

Thai Shani, who ‘takes inspiration from disparate histories, narratives and characters mined from forgotten sources,’ who made the final with  an audio-visual installation of’ a post-patriarchal fantasy world,’  Helen Cammock, a black artist who works in film, ‘uncovering marginalised voices within history,’ Oscar Murillo, a Columbian migrant who uses stuffed dummies to explore, ‘issues of migration, community, exchange and trade in today’s globalised world,’ and Lawrence Abu Hamdan who has a PhD from Goldsmiths and calls himself an ‘audio investigator,’ exploring ‘The politics of listening’ together wrote this letter:

‘This year you have selected a group of artists who, perhaps more than ever before in the Prize’s history, are all engaged in forms of social or participatory practice. More specifically, each of us makes art about social and political issues and contexts we believe are of great importance and urgency. The politics we deal with differ greatly, and for us it would feel problematic if they were pitted against each other, with the implication that one was more important, significant or more worthy of attention than the others.’

This trend is about putting the collective, particularly the female idea of cooperation above individual achievement. In August Olivia Laing, after winning the James Tait Black Prize for her novel Crudo, split the £10,000 prize money with her fellow shortlisted authors because she opined, ‘competition has no place in art.’ She also said her decision was ‘very much prompted by Boris Johnson and Brexit, and a sense of wanting to fight back against this endless culture of winners and losers.’

These moves reflect a scared, confused culture where no one, parents, teachers, priests or politicians dare to make a judgement on anyone. As Melanie Phillips prophesied about our education system way back in 1996, ‘all must have prizes.’

Not even those tasked with the single objective of choosing one winner, feels able to make a clear-cut decision. Artists who are happy to enter a national competition with all the publicity that entails cannot actually go on and take the risk of losing, something that every school child was once told to accept.  

As usual with ‘Woke’ precepts there is an illogicality here. The short-listed artists are worried that their treasured political shibboleths might be pitted against each other. There’s a hierarchy of virtue to think of; does it demean feminists if the feminist artist doesn’t win? Does it suggest you don’t care about Syrian prisoners if that nominee is over-looked? Can a black woman ever be allowed to lose to a white man?  If everything is about social justice, intention must be raised above outcome.

Yet the purpose of an art prize is not to say whether torture is more significant than sexism, or the plight of trafficked women more shameful than the lack of disabled people shown in TV adverts. It’s about judging individual skill. Whether any one work of art is ever better than another is always subjective. The Mall Gallery currently hosts The Royal Society of Oil Painters, a show mainly filled with cliched views of Venice and boring bowls of fruit. While no one can always agree with a jury’s decision, respected big money prizes should showcase prize winning work that at least invites public discussion and may even encourage others to up their own skills in imitation.

While art doesn’t demand winners or losers, prize-giving does and some cultural confidence is needed to do it. Judges need to be able to discriminate and disappoint the losers. The judged need to be able to accept that decision and possibly learn from it.

It’s noticeable that those involved in this public relinquishing of prize money are mostly women. In schools, even in art lessons children are now encouraged to work together in groups, ‘collaboratively,’ rather than by themselves. We’re constantly told that girls are more group orientated and cooperative than boys. It used to be said that that they did better at course work rather than the one- off heat and pressure of exams. Even in Parliament we’ve seen this idea emerge; that fierce ‘boys’ banter’ belongs to a vile past of winner takes all,  which like risk, has little appeal for women. With their increasing presence in education, academia and art, it seems that the new feminists are winning this one and consigning the stress and pain of competition to the past.

Charles Thomson, unashamedly hierarchical leader of the Stuckists, doesn’t take this new development too seriously. ‘This year’s nominees have succeeded in adding a minor frisson of novelty to the usual dull and predictable proceedings,’ he says. ‘Perhaps in the future we should have just forget about nominees altogether and the judges can award the prize to themselves.’

For many of us the contest remains merely an echo-chamber. As Thomson puts it, ‘How many of the nominees or winners can anyone name apart from Damien Hirst?’

W.M Turner on the other hand, a man who spent his whole life exploring the extremes of paint….


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12 Comments on The Tate Britain Annual Narcissist’s Prize

  1. Even when the cultural-marxist emperor has no clothes, the makers of the non-existent clothes have to be rewarded whether the emperor chooses to wear them or not.

    Needless to say, nobody who makes real clothes will get a share.

  2. I’m wondering if the Turner Prize people might be interested in my performance art piece, Noose Hanging From A Tree Branch?

    Which reminds me, who’s that woman sitting on the left side of the cartoon introducing this post? Can’t quite place her.

    • johnhenry: Is the noose made from biodegradable rope? Is the tree old enough to have been planted by somebody who might have profited from slavery? Is the artist a representative of an approved minority? These are important questions in modern aesthetic theory. If your answers are wrong, no, the judges won’t be interested, unless you hang an effigy of Boris from the noose, in which case you’ll win prizes and earn a fortune.

  3. Surely the main point about this year’s decision is that – wonderfully – it’s probably killed off this idiot prize, because next year’s lot will have to do the same for peril of otherwise being seen as “elitists”. And so having a shortlist will be seen to be pointless …

    • In the great tradition of endless protest next year’s gang will have to go one better: perhaps they’ll strip naked and stand on their heads in the Mall.

      • Robert Sharpe: Or they’ll demand (while stripping naked and standing on their heads, which they’ll probably do anyway) that the prize be donated to “reparations for slavery” or “climate emergency” or whatever next year’s trendy nonsense is.

  4. As a fan of photography (is this art?), I have noticed that the majority of known ones (the pushy ones) who are as interested in selling their art as creating it, seem almost to a man to be of a leftward persuasion. The thing is that although I am not of the left, I find that much of what they produce has merit, I just ignore the hobby horse that they happen to be on at a given juncture.

    There are far fewer that are pleased to just make pictures and show them (or not) purely because they enjoy the process, but they are no less valid, they just don’t beetle around spouting off all the time.

    So we hear that Robert Frank had his day in the sun with his “Americans” a statement on the state of that nation during the late 1950’s, which inevitably spent a lot of time on southern segregation etc..

    Meanwhile, Tony Vaccaro was shooting the war, and then fashion and Saul Leiter was experimenting with colour film, neither were whingeing on about left wing politics, they are/were happy that you just like their pictures and buy their books or prints.

    But getting back to the Turner prize, perhaps the winners were all of a mind that their “work” was not good enough, so they were happy to share the prize and run for the hills?

    Anyway, I don’t reckon that good art needs any explanation.

    And never forget that as Turner is fabled to have declared on his deathbed….

    “The Sun is God!”

  5. Turner is soon to be defacing our £20 notes despite being inferior to just about every Brit artist and a sh*t to boot. We should have Edvard Munch’s Scream on the £20 as a warning against Corbyn.

    • Michael McManus: I’m not a fan of Turner, and I’d rather see Reynolds or Raeburn or Hilliard on our banknotes, but why do we have to have images of painters on our banknotes at all? Why not Lord Nelson? The Black Prince? Enoch Powell? (I know why not. My questions are, alas, rhetorical.)

  6. Why does every piece of art these days look as though it was produced by a Left wing activist? That applies even to the popular but ludicrously overrated Banksy. Remember his “Dismaland” – as politically patronising as an Owen Jones tract. Do these artist need a social/political cause of some sort to give their work a spurious significance?