Girls win prizes

Today the Turner Prize shortlist is announced. The winner will receive pounds 20,000 and acres of publicity. But if you're a man looking for recognition, forget it. Matthew Collings ponders the all female line-up

Hi! We're at a dinner party. Somebody says the magic words - Turner Prize. A question game starts up. Is the Turner Prize a good thing or a bad thing? Should there just not be any prizes for art? Aren't they always a bit ghastly and silly? Why is it always alienated post-modern knick-knack art that's nominated? Where's the drawing and painting and stone-carving? Why do artists talk in a very stilted artificial way that makes you want to kill yourself? Are they like that in real life or only on TV?

These are all good questions. My favourite is the one about stone-carving. Actually there was a stone-carver one year - Tony Cragg. But I think he gets assistants to do his carving for him. And usually they're stone-carvings of dice or rubber stamps or something. Enlarged to monumental size. Not shapely nudes.

Because contemporary art just doesn't go in for that kind of thing. It's all in the mind now. That's why it's called Conceptual Art. And then it's all in how you present their stuff that's in your mind. That's why it's called Installation Art.

So, first of all, as an artist, your mind is a bit post-modern and alienated, because that's what we all are, even if we're not artists. Post-modern means things not meaning what they used to mean but not looking radically different, so it's hard to tell exactly how they've stopped meaning the old things. That applies to everything now - art, life, Top of the Pops. Everything.

And secondly, it would be strange to try and present that in a straightforward stone-carving kind of way, because stone-carving is the same as everything else. It's completely up for grabs as far as meaning goes. For one thing, it's an aesthetic thing and a skill thing (OK, that's two things), and aesthetics and skill are out. At least, they're out in the way that they used to be in. They're not believed in in the way they used to be. In fact, they're still in, but not in the old way. They're in in a new way.

In fact all the artists on the Turner Prize list this year are pretty aesthetic. And pretty skillful. But not in the way Eric Gill used to be. Or Brancusi. More like the way Joseph Beuys used to be. Except not completely like him because his way of not being aesthetic or skillful in the old Brancusi way involved a lot of heavy personal charisma, which is another thing that's more or less out now. It's not considered necessary anymore. Even Damien Hirst, who won the prize last year, is pretty normal in the way he behaves. It's just his art that's weird. But that isn't really weird either because we see it all the time on TV, so we're used it. It's normal.

So really these things aren't impossible to think about or to answer. We're just used to playing the game that they're impossible. What is the Turner Prize for anyway? It's a publicity event, to get the media to pay attention to the achievements of British artists. And the values of everybody outside that, which are even harder to get, of course. But there is a kind of Zeitgeisty generalised worldview of things that a lot of people kind of have. If there wasn't, Today and Start the Week would be impossible to understand. Actually, they really are impossible for a lot of people to understand but then the Turner Prize isn't for them. It's for the Today and Start the Week world. It can't solve everything after all.

Basically it has to show the Radio 4 understanders that it knows what the cutting edge in contemporary art is. But it has to show also that it has a kind of authority and a dignity and identity of its own so everybody outside the cutting-edge world will believe in it. Like Tinkerbell. Except fairies are out now.

So what about the artists this year? Gillian Wearing. Angela Bulloch. Cornelia Parker. Christine Borland. All women and all of them not painting or sculpting. Last year it was all men and one of them was a painter. So it's certainly different. It's different and the same, at the same time. And that's only right.

Who will win? I don't know. If I was a judge, I'd probably vote for Gillian Wearing because she does a very direct kind of art where the thoughts and sayings and fantasies and behaviour of incredibly real people, mostly not Radio 4 understanders are the subject. She's dark and outsider-ish and a bit dysfunctional. And that's all good, too, especially within the context of the Turner Prize, which is a bit white and shiny and highbrow.

Christine Borland is a kind of Conceptual Art version of the way Start the Week mostly talks about science and Steven Hawking nowadays, and not so much about cultural things. We're suddenly fascinated by pop science but we don't know why and she's picked up on that. She does experiments and investigations, like firing a rifle at a piece of glass and then exhibiting the glass with the holes in it and listing the exact velocity and gauge of the bullet and width of glass and so on. Or getting some real bone fragments and having a forensic head-reconstruction artist make a head from them. Which is kind of fascinating. So she could get the prize because it's a way of showing that contemporary art is fascinated by the same things that everyone else is on to.

Another thing everybody finds fascinating is ordinary familiar things and that's Cornelia Parker's area, so she could get the prize too. She got an old shed and blew it up once and then exhibited the fragments. It was completely blown up into a million pieces but it was still an old shed that a real person had pottered about in once.

But maybe I'd give it to Angela Bulloch. Just because she's so relaxed about modern life. They all Post-Warhol artists - they make art out of modern life but then they kind of fold their arms and shrug and leave the audience to work out the meaning. But she's the most purely Warholian. She does installations with blinking light bulbs and giant floppy bean bags and the remains of take-away meals and environmental soundtracks of overheard conversations that don't particularly seem to be going anywhere. It's art that looks so relaxed and inclusive and unjudgemental about anything that at first you think, "uh?" But after you've been going round it for a while, you wonder if perhaps everyone else isn't being a bit obvious

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