Long Read – Turner turned off: Art prize reimagined in wake of Covid-19

Published by Florence McCrae on May 31st 2020, 1:01pm

1984 is perhaps better associated with Orwell than with the contemporary arts. Yet the year is of particular significance in the modern art world – it saw the foundation of the Turner Prize, an award, according to the Tate “formed to encourage wider interest in contemporary art and assist Tate in acquiring new works.” Sadly, it was revealed earlier this week that the 2020 incarnation of the prize was to be cancelled, with the prize money used as artist bursaries instead.

Originally founded in honour of English painter J.M.W Turner, the award was intended to recognise a visual artist who displayed what was then defined as “Britishness”. The eponymous Turner is arguably an apt choice of namesake – within his own life he was known for pushing the artistic boundaries of his time, most notably so in his decision to use square canvases as opposed to the more conventional rectangular ones, upsetting his more rule-abiding Victorian contemporaries.

While it would seem superficially Turner had little respect for the establishment, this is perhaps unfair. Indeed, it is recorded that the man himself was suitably embittered by the decision of Queen Victoria to pass him over for a knighthood. The thousands of pieces he painted throughout his career are now spread across the world, though the Tate Britain holds the most enviable collection.

Almost a century and a half after his death, Turner’s recognition as one of the country’s greatest artists (seen this year when he made headlines as the latest cultural figure to feature on banknotes across the country) ensured a prize was founded in his honour. Through toeing the line between controversy and traditionalism, there is perhaps no better figure to name such an award after.

There are, of course, specific stipulations to winning such an award, which must be observed in order to be made eligible. The award is offered for the work conducted in a previous year, as opposed to, for example, the Erasmus prize, gifted to an artist in recognition of a life’s work. The award body believed “Britain should have its own award for visual arts, an equivalent to the Booker Prize” and as such, the rules are relatively similar.

One difference was the introduction of an age limit in 1991, which dictated that the winner had to be under the age of 50 at the time of receiving the award. According to the Tate, this was intended to play an “important role in introducing the work of emerging artist.” Three years ago, the restriction was lifted in recognition of the fact that “artists can experience a breakthrough in their work at any age.” This was a particularly timely decision, with Lubaina Himid winning the 2017 award at the age of 63.

The structure of the award is perhaps unusual. While an independent body of judges has the final say, members of the public are able to suggest those they believe would make worthy winners. With those nominated revealed in May, a show of the four finalists is hosted at the Tate Modern in the months following, with the winner decided by the board and announced in December. While the award is a relatively meagre (for the art world at least) £25,000, the resultant exposure is priceless. 

The inaugural award was presented to Malcolm Morley, a New York based artist who presented two oil-on-canvas paintings inspired by a recent trip to Greece. It seems only fitting that the award courted controversy from the very start, with the body criticised for giving an award for “Britishness” to an artist who had resided in New York for the past two decades.

The idea of nationalism within art is by no means unique to the Turner prize, indeed, the issue is raised time and time again. According to Jonathan Jones, art critic at The Guardian and former Turner Prize judge, the award fits well within the country’s comprehensive understanding of modern art. He notes: “To understand the impact of the Turner Prize, especially in the 1990s, you have to understand that modern art was never internalized in 20th-century British culture in the same way as in America or, say, Germany.

“There was no British answer to MoMA before the opening of Tate Modern in 2000, and few people collected contemporary art, with the notable exception of Charles Saatchi. Beyond that, it was totally respectable for university-educated, middle-class people to affect a contempt for Picasso, let alone Jackson Pollock (assuming they’d heard of him) and ‘modern art’ in general.

“So when a generation of young, punkish, conceptual artists led by Damien Hirst made intentionally provocative and unquestionable avant-garde art, the Turner became the stage for a culture war that was really about what kind of place Britain should be. It was our modernist moment, many decades after the U.S. and other European countries.”

Talk of a clear gender imbalance plagued the early years of the award. In the first three rosters of artists there was only one woman, Milena Kalinovksa, under consideration for receipt of the award. The first female winner, Rachel Whiteread, received the award in 1993, almost a decade after its foundation.

Indeed, the award has courted more controversy than Katie Hopkins in its four decades of existence. From conceptual protestors having a pillow fight on Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, to Martin Creed’s 2001 win, which saw him receive the prize money for a piece known as Work No 227: the lights going on and off. For the uninitiated, the piece delivered precisely as promised, with the lights switching on and off repetitively in a darkened room. Yet now, in a world where Trump is president and the British government is falling foul of its own rules, it feels that controversy is perhaps a little tired.

It is said that winning the Turner award is a career defining moment. Indeed, the roster of winners is more impressive than most. From the infamous Gilbert and George to semi-national treasure Antony Gormley, the controversial Damien Hirst, to the even more controversial Tracey Emin, the great and the good of the modern art world have all been recognised in receipt of the award.

However, the great and the good, have also met the award with criticism. One such opposer to the award is Prince Charles, who wrote to Kim Howells in 2002, that “It's good to hear your refreshing common sense about the dreaded Turner prize. It has contaminated the art establishment for so long." Howells, the then-culture secretary, had referred to the award as “conceptual bullshit”.

The award's unpopularity is such that there are a range of parody awards held in its honour. The K Foundation, known best perhaps for burning £1 million pounds in an attempt to be controversial, created the 1994 Anti-Turner award, the first of which was also awarded to Whiteread a sum of £40,000, twice that of the actual Turner Award prize at the time. Whiteread famously refused the prize money, before finding that it would be burnt if she did not accept it. She gave three quarters to artists in need and the remainder to Shelter.

At the turn of the century, the Turnip Prize was also announced, headlined as "a crap art competition... You can enter anything you like, but it must be rubbish". Categories included but were by no means limited to "Lack of effort" and "Is it shit?". The Real Turner Prize (issued for painters) and the Art Clown of the Year Award have also stemmed from the Turner Award and continue to be issued to this day. It is unclear whether or not they will also face cancellation as a result of Covid-19.

This year is by no means the first time the Turner prize has been cancelled. Indeed, the award was not given in 1990 because of Drexel Burnham Lambert withdrawing funding for the show. Indeed, the year was used to encourage a sea change within the competition, with then chairman Sir Nicholas Serota ensuring the public could become involved through the formal publication of a shortlist which they were encouraged to contribute to.

Last year’s award was also unconventional, though for a different reason entirely. The four shortlisted artists took the power away from the board, demanding that they receive the money and recognition as a collective, as opposed to pitting one against the other. The four artists, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo and Tai Shani, were announced as the collective winner, in the name of “commonality, multiplicity and solidarity”.

The award’s board are in excellent company following their decision to cancel this year’s prize. They follow the delay and ultimately the cancellation of comparably important events on the cultural calendar including the Met Gala and more recently the Venice Biennale, which have both been delayed until next year. It seems that the outbreak of Covid-19 has rewritten the cultural rulebook, albeit temporarily.

Yet it is perhaps less the decision to cancel the award for this year that is worthy of note, and more the decision to reallocate the money that is of particular interest. In a year of a more conventional nature, the award money would be subdivided among the winner and the three “runners up”. Now, in an attempt to mitigate some of the damage done by the pandemic, the prize money has been doubled, and then divided, providing ten bursaries of £10,000 apiece, hoping to keep the up and coming artists still able to come up.

According to the Tate Britain, the body responsible for issuing the award: “The tight timetable for preparing for the annual exhibition would not have been achievable under the present restrictions.” They continued that the new fund would be used “to help support a larger selection of artists through this period of profound disruption and uncertainty”.

The director of the Tate Britain, Alex Farquharson, has perhaps gone a step further, hiding from the logistical issues of this brave new world somewhat. “We have decided to help support even more artists during this exceptionally difficult time” he notes. “I think JMW Turner, who once planned to leave his fortune to support artists in their hour of need, would approve of our decision.” A shameless reference to the man himself serves to shift the responsibility of the awarding body to a man who has been dead for almost 200 years.

Tracy Brabin, former shadow culture secretary, praised this year’s decision of the board, stating that: “We need more moves like this to help the arts survive this existential crisis. Let’s hope the winners come from all regions of the UK and it embraces diversity in creativity.”

Farquharson attempts to quell the concerns of those who had laid their hopes on a visit this year, stating that: “I appreciate visitors will be disappointed that there is no Turner prize this year, but we can all look forward to it returning in 2021.”

If the potential audience finds themselves frustrated by the current state of affairs, one cannot help but feel for the jury, who have spent the past 12 months travelling the length and breadth of the country in an attempt to determine just who makes the cut. The board will still be entitled to a vote, though on an entirely different remit to the one they signed up for. They will be tasked with defining a group of artists who are either British or Britain-based, based on “their contribution to new developments in contemporary art at this time”. The ten artists who are yet to be selected will be announced in June.

Once more the board finds themselves in excellent company for their decision to provide funding for the arts in this manner. Artangel, a London-based charity, are also providing bursaries of up to £5,000 in order to support artists and offer them much sought after “thinking time”. The Contemporary Art Society have gone in a slightly different direction, providing at least £120,00 for museums and galleries to purchase new works by contemporary artists.

It would seem that for a prize which has reached such renown for being controversial, its current decision is anything but. It is possible, that after all it has been through, the Turner prize has finally grown up.


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Authored By

Florence McCrae
Literary Editor
May 31st 2020, 1:01pm

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