What were you thinking? What? What? What?
This is the question I'd ask the people who selected the artists for this year’s Turner Prize. The first time I visited, I thought I must have missed something – perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood. Surely no arbiter in their right mind could’ve let such hectoring, cultural studies-sanctioned guff slip through the net? So I went again. And nope. I was right the first time – and then some.
My first Turner Prize was in 1999, and hyperbolic though it sounds, what I saw there changed the way I thought about nearly everything. Yes, it was showy, sensationalist, in-yer-face. But it was pretty clear that the excitement it stirred up was far from empty. The artists that year were Steve McQueen (who won), Jane & Louise Wilson, Steven Pippin and, of course, Tracey Emin.
Say what you like about Mad Tracey from Margate, but being confronted with a work of art like My Bed was quite something – it forced me to think about cruelty, sex and guilt for the first time in my life. It’s no exaggeration to say that this was what shoved me loping into adolescence. What’s more, it was a confrontational, vital work of art that kicked off a national argument. It did what it was supposed to do.
So for this reason, I’ve always tried to give the Turner Prize a fair hearing. Even when I know I’ve been wrong, I’ve defended the Tate’s annual love-in as a necessary evil of the arts calendar. ‘It’s a bad year,’ I might have admitted, ‘but in general, the Turner Prize is A Good Thing.’
But this year, I’ve had it. I give up.
It's bad alright. But hang back – ‘bad’ doesn’t tell the full story, not by a long way. We need qualifiers here. To put it bluntly, the Turner Prize’s 2014 selection committee has somehow contrived to put together the worst shortlist in the award’s history. With the exception of (Canadian) artist Ciara Phillips’s room, the show is proper bottom-of-the-barrel bollocks.
This makes it sound interesting, in the way that an air disaster might be interesting. It’s not. You feel you’ve been robbed of the time you've spunked watching the films of Duncan Campbell, James Richards and Tris Vonna-Michell. It has, frankly, set new standards for quite how bad art in a major gallery can get.
‘By bringing four different artists together, you get four very different views of what’s significant in the world today,’ Nick Serota claimed recently. One is tempted to take that statement literally. What is significant in the world today? Marx? French art house cinema? Onanism in the name of ‘making a statement’?
The show does demand some difficult questions. Namely: are these four really the best young(ish) artists Britain has to offer? And is this the final proof that we’ve hit cultural rock bottom?
Of course not. All it proves is just how ghastly, self-congratulatory and unapproachable the British art establishment can be when it gets the chance. In theory, the prize helps raise the profile of artists who deserve greater recognition – and in fairness, I think that on occasion the Turner Prize still does this. For the first time in God-knows-how-long, last year’s line-up was pretty good. But this?
If we’re being kind, which isn’t easy, we might imagine that this isn’t the artists’ fault. Who knows? Maybe if it was displayed in a disused transport caff in East Berlin or somewhere, Duncan Campbell’s work might make more sense. Maybe, just maybe, Tris Vonna Michell and James Richards’s art might be great in isolation. I doubt it, but never say never.
The trouble is that their work is all but indistinguishable: it’s monochrome, student-political and self-consciously ‘mysterious’. It’s gauche and should never have been put in a museum show, let alone the most hyped-up museum show of the year. Who profits from it? Well, as you’re by now aware, it sure as hell ain’t the public. Not the artists, either – they get five grand and a sewage tank of the sort of vitriolic mockery I’m peddling here. Nobody profits in the long term. Except for brand Tate.
There is a clear winner this year, and that is Ciara Phillips. I’ve seen better examples of her shouty, colourful work elsewhere, and even those are hardly life-changing. Here, her stuff stands out by virtue of the dross that surrounds it. But it does at least stand out, albeit by default. It might seem unfair to Phillips, but I’ve got an idea I’d like to put to the Turner jury.
This year, make a stand. Don’t give the award to anybody. Because if you’re serious about the rubbish on show this year, you are insulting every artist working in Britain today. You are insulting the public, who are expected to cough up £11 to look at this crap. And you know what the real kicker is? You’re undermining any justification for the Turner Prize’s existence.