Last month the Tate announced the four artists chosen to compete for the 2015 Turner Prize. The award, currently in its 31st year, is arguably the most prestigious in Britain’s arts establishment. Established in London in 1984, the Turner Prize is annually awarded to a British artist under the age of 50 for a work he or she created in the preceding year. Surrounding the actual awarding of the prize itself is a nearly four month long exhibition of the shortlisted artists’ works, during which the Tate, the artists, and the sponsors of the award garner an overwhelming amount of media attention. Initially designed to promote conversations around contemporary art and help connect it to mainstream culture, the Turner Prize has in a larger sense grown into the modern-day form of Patronage in the arts, providing young British artists with a platform and the financial means to create since its inception over thirty years ago. And it seems as though these efforts have paid off—contemporary art is bigger and bolder than its ever been and yet each year the public grows increasingly unimpressed, which begs the question: has the Turner Prize run its course?
In 2011, former Turner Prize and BP Portrait Award judge Jonathan Jones exclaimed, “I have taken a certain amount of pleasure in the way a jury can make a point, even advance an argument; how an interesting choice of shortlist, a convincing winner, can convey ideas about art”. He continued, “But that’s one way of looking at it. At times there seems to be a new prize announcement every few days. Can this really be good for culture? And what drives it?”. What Jones is getting at is the prolific rise of awards handed out in the visual arts in recent years and how—in his opinion, and the opinion of many activist groups—this is not a case of ‘the more the merrier’. In fact, recently there has come to exist a palpable fear amongst art world experts that we’re beginning to confuse quantity with quality. In the heyday of the Turner Prize, the award was granted to one member of a particular clique of artists. Contemporary art was, generally speaking, still in its adolescence. The great practitioners were few and far between, and the purpose of the Turner Prize was to promote a dialogue by passing the award’s baton from one artist to the next—until it eventually went full-circle. In an article in last November’s Vanity Fair, writer Caroline Roux explains, “In the flurry of YBA excitement in the 1990’s, there were just the right number of contemporary British artists a particularly exhibition-friendly type to form an orderly queue. ‘Thats why its called the Turner Prize,’ quipped the Chapman Brothers. ‘Because Everyone gets a turn’”. It’s primary function was to strengthen the public’s understanding of Contemporary art at a time when society as a whole found it strange, inaccessible, silly, and at times crude. The goal was to raise consciousness surrounding anti-establishment art, a task that has long since been completed.
The June edition of The Art Newspaper lists thirteen artists and architects who have been awarded art prizes this month alone. Now, that number is sure to vary from month to month, but it is pointedly indicative of the dizzying number of artists we have come to bestow these honors upon—and the accompanying sums of cash. There is even an award for patrons, courtesy of Montblanc, which grants outstanding supporters of the arts with £15,000 to fund an artist or project of their choice. The proliferation of art prizes has risen alongside a proliferation of artists themselves, and in conjunction these circumstances have created a situation in which artists rarely manage to get shortlisted more than once in their lifetime. “This is insane,” says The Observer’s art critic, Laura Cumming. “You wouldn’t expect Coetzee or Keneally to be shortlisted just once for the Man Booker and then ignored for the rest of their career…Can you even remember who was shortlisted last year? Who won the year before? Has anything been seen of Tomma Abts since she won in 2006?”.
Increasingly art awards have come to act as one of the countless mechanisms by which the luxury world tries to dignify its own image, and many fear that the current state of entrenchment, coupled with the growing influence of juries as opposed to art critics, prevents prizes from fulfilling their duty of promoting great new art. “The tendency of prizes…is to perpetuate the establishment taste of the day,” says Jones. “And a culture like ours, in which prizes gain increasing power over the arts, needs to beware of sinking into a conservatism that measures the worth of an artist like that of a cabinet full of trophies”. However, despite all the shortcomings of the modern day art prize, the intrinsic function of art awards is not without merit. At a time when countless major museums are canceling shows, cutting staff, and struggling to maintain necessary footfall, art prizes create sponsorship opportunities in which patrons, artists and belt-tightening museums all reap benefits. Hardly anyone is urging for a complete abolishment of art prizes. Rather, the anti-art prize outcry should be understood as a plea for reform, whether that comes in the form of staging awards every three years as opposed to every year, or by changing the selection process and placing leadership into the hands of organizations that more appropriately reflect the vast diversity of art being produced in one particular nation or group of artists. “One thing is for sure,” says The Telegraph’s Mark Hudson. “Something has to change”.