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Turner Prize 2006 Shortlist 2006-11-29

Posted by clype in Humanities, Money.
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‘The Turner Prize’ comes round again. The winner will be announced next week, but there is a lot more riding on success than the 25 000 GBP prize. It is a badly managed career if the winner does not thereafter grow rich.

This year the four with a chance are

  1. Ms.Tomma Abts,
  2. Mr.Phil Collins,
  3. Mr.Mark Titchner and
  4. Ms.Rebecca Warren.

[Picture of painting by Titchner] [Picture of painting by Titchner] [Picture of painting by Titchner] [Picture of painting by Titchner] [Picture of painting by Titchner]

Mark Titchner is first as you go through the galleries at ‘Tate Britain’. His room is dominated by a billboard with the enigmatic exhortation: ‘Tiny masters of the world come out!’ Is that not just a little patronising to the visiting public? There is also a machine with spinning spiral disks lifted from Duchamp, a posthumous candidate for ‘The Turner Prize’ each year. The third piece is a dotty array of batteries, coils and the like with the injunction ‘Step inside this machine. Amidst copper, magnet and crystal relax breathe, follow your will.’ Cherie Blair stuff, New-Age daft.

[Picture of Rebecca Warren sculpture] [Picture of Rebecca Warren sculpture]

Second comes sculptor Rebecca Warren. She has turned modelled clay and cast bronze into a kind of accidental art form. The images are largely incoherent, three-dimensional blobs with odd echoes of classical forms of sculpture. She has also installed small wiggles of coloured fluorescent tube in glass vitrines.

[Picture of painting by Abts] [Picture of painting by Abts] [Picture of painting by Abts] [Picture of painting by Abts] [Picture of painting by Abts]

[Picture of Tomma Abts]The favourite is Tomma Abts, a painter, but not a very good one. Her paintings, all the same small size, look like minor abstract art from the 1920s. The labels for ‘The Turner Prize’ are always a treat, but the commentary on Abts excels: ‘Abts creates a complex interplay between the painting’s physical surface and the form that it describes.’ What an astonishing discovery!

The last of the four is Phil Collins, showing a series of filmed interviews of victims of TV reality shows in Turkey. He has also created an office within the gallery, home for a pseudo-research project for people who think they are such victims. Collins also set up a press conference. It is the pot calling the kettle black. As he exploits them in his own reality show, his victims are victims all over again.

Why has our premier art prize become so irredeemably mediocre? Lynn Barber threw some light on this when she described her experience as a judge in ‘The Observer’ recently. She is the outsider. The others on the jury are art professionals. She was told she had to see hundreds of contemporary exhibitions and shortlist six artists.

She actually tried, but ‘The Tate’ did not bother to provide her with a list of eligible shows until most of them were over. Later, she discovered the jury mostly made their judgments online or from photos anyway. The public has the right to make nominations, but they were ignored. So were all but one of her six artists. The one who survived, by some accident of symbiosis, also appeared on a list that magically found consensus among the other judges’ overlapping choices.

Her role as outsider was cosmetic. The cosy in-group of professionals were not going to be diverted. The outcome was their choice alone.

‘The Turner Prize’ is a media creature. It is a bit like Ms.Paris Hilton, for instance, who found fame as the unwitting star of a blue movie, famous for being famous with an edge of arch, self-conscious naughtiness. We are supposed to be shocked, irritated even. It does not matter. It all generates media coverage and that is its lifeblood. The other thing about Paris Hilton, however, is that she is very rich. Great wealth is her real charm, and ‘The Turner Prize’ is about money, not the measly prize money, but much bigger bucks. ‘The Tate’ is a public gallery, but this is about private wealth. There are very rich collectors out there spending very large sums on this kind of art and ‘The Turner Prize’ endorses their investments.

‘The 2005 Frieze Art Fair’ turned over 33 million GBP in a few days. Those millions could never be made up of the little sums you and I spend. The Chapman brothers, for instance, shortlisted for ‘The Turner Prize’ in 2003, were doing portraits at 4 500 GBP for a 20-minute sitting, small change, evidently, for ‘Art Fair’ punters (also notionally 108 000 GBP each brother for an eight-hour day).

But as neither of the Chapman brothers can draw very well, what would you actually get for your money, or indeed for a six-figure sum if you went for a more substantial witness to their supposed genius? You would be buying into the illusion of risk-taking and daring originality, a flattering association for those who think their own courage and daring made them rich, but, above all, you would be buying a proxy share of that most coveted of 21st-century assets, the media visibility that these artists command.

‘The Turner Prize’ creates confidence and confidence creates wealth. Charles Saatchi has grown even richer than he was before by inflating the Brit Art bubble and profiting from it. But it also makes the artists rich. Damien Hirst, ‘The Turner Prize 1995′ winner, is now mega-rich. His own expensive collection is currently showing at ‘The Serpentine Gallery’ and that will make him richer still. Just a year ago, there was almost a scandal when recent ‘Turner Prize’ winner, Chris Ofili, sold a group of 13 works to ‘The Tate’ for 705 000 GBP, a staggering amount for a minor artist whose gimmick is elephant poo. At the time Ofili was actually a trustee of ‘The Tate’, but nobody seemed to think there was anything in the slightest untoward about that. He simply stepped out of the room while his fellow trustees considered the purchase. It added piquancy that his dealer, Victoria Miro, also lobbied for quick payment as Ofili was getting married. There was some tutting, but it was all smoothed over. No-one resigned. They all went back to business as usual, stitching up the art market.

It is circular. Ofili won ‘The Turner Prize’. That made his work desirable. ‘The Tate’ manages the Prize. It also pays a premium price for Ofili‘s work, however, because of its own success in maintaining the fiction that the Prize is all about the avant garde. When it really did exist, the avant garde was a needle to keep the inherent conservatism of bourgeois society from ossifying completely. It was an opposition. Like radical political thought, it also broached new ideas which at first went against the current consensus, but eventually became mainstream. On the surface, ‘The Turner Prize’ appeals to this idea. It strenuously markets the fiction that these tired, second-rate artists are really somehow agents of renewal, the sharp prow of the great ship of art cutting through the waters of strange and unknown artistic seas. But they are nothing of the kind. These are artists cosying up to wealth to become wealthy themselves. They don’t question anything. On the contrary, they market platitudes to the very rich who in turn, buying their art, buy into a fiction of difference, renewal and change.

Only with the High Victorians was there ever before such a close alliance between wealth and art; only then could artists become as rich as their patrons as they do now; only then were such large sums spent on such bad art as we see now. As though to illustrate this comparison, Andrew Lloyd Webber has been collecting High Victorian art for some time. He exhibited his collection at ‘The Royal Academy’ in London a few years ago. It compared very well on the scale of sheer awfulness with Saatchi’s collection of ‘Brit Art’, exhibited there shortly before.

There is a lesson there, but reflect on this too. Early in the last century, the English reception of ‘Modernism’ was vitiated by snobbery. The joy of modern art for the awful Bloomsbury lot was that it set them apart. It was too ‘difficult’ for the ordinary men and women in the street to understand. Now contemporary art is vitiated in the same way by the snobbery of wealth, by collectors claiming difference from the rest of us as they buy art that is notionally difficult, at prices that suggest it’s highly serious, when it is really just an over-hyped, empty charade.

• The winner of the Turner Prize 2006 will be announced on 2006-12-04. The exhibition continues until 2007-01-14.

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