“Is this a Turner for the better” and other clever headlines

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The most convincing criticism of contemporary art in general (also known by some of my friends as ‘conceptual bull’), is that most of it exists only to question the audience’s view of what art is.

Such art, I agree, is not art. At least, it was considered so back in the 60s, where it was perfectly valid to create a piece with the sole intention of getting us to answer the question “then what is art?” – but since then we have moved on. We have answered that question.

(In fact, it was way earlier than the 60s, in fact probably not even last century, but the whole thing was arguably popularised at this point.)

By inference, the most convincing criticism of the Turner Prize – which usually features the likes of cow brains, elephant dung, and other headline-inducing artistic concepts – the most convincing criticism is that it is entirely self-referential, and nothing more.

Well, it is self-referential, but this isn’t the whole story. A great proportion of historic art is also self-referential, but this seems to pass Turner critics by.

One solution that Turner defenders seize upon is to argue that the concept behind each work is what defines the work’s value, and the success of the work is based on two things:

  1. the artistic journey behind the concept (artistic process, technique, relevance of the concept to the audience and to society, etc.)
  2. the power that the physical rendition of the concept (i.e. the thing that gets put in a gallery) has to point the audience towards the concept; its physical success.

Personally, I don’t accept this, and it seems to me a regressive move to defend contemporary art in such a dialectic.

When Kim Howells denounced the Turner Prize as “conceptual bullshit”, I believe he didn’t mean that conceptual art is bullshit, but rather that the quality of the concepts were bullshit.

He may have been right or wrong, but this should not affect our view of the validity of a Turner piece as a piece of ‘real art’.

I know we all come to our own conclusions as to what questions were answered by the first strands of conceptual art – whether you think this was in the 60s or the 1917 or what. For me, it is that art does not require being part of a larger system or strand of development, nor does it require any kind of grounding in, or reference to society. Art is at its most powerful when considered as aesthetically autonomous. An autonomous art needs no defense.

It is no surprise that the papers have focused on how this year’s Turner Prize winner is more of a ‘traditional’ artist. The Daily Mail calls it “Actual Art” in their special little article.

And I am very glad at the announcement of Wright as this year’s winner of the Turner Prize. In fact I haven’t met a single person that didn’t want him to win this year’s Turner Prize.

But, given my views above, it upset me that this year’s judges said things like “it is just so beautiful” instead of providing a good reason as to why he won this year. This, I feel, makes a mockery of contemporary art.


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