British art: don't knock it

Nominations for the Turner Prize closed yesterday; the shortlist will follow on 12 July - and then it's open season on contemporar y art. It should be a time for celebration, not denigration, says Louisa Buck. And, below, the experts make their personal co
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Here we are, at the centre of the contemporary art world, a country with no national museum of modern art, patrons you can count on the fingers of one hand and politicians whose idea of a gallery is the one running around the chamber of the House of Commons. Never mind that our popular press treats art as an elaborate practical joke, and that for most of the public art is a dirty word. Call it Dunkirk spirit or just national bloody-mindedness, it is now internationally acknowledged that the best, and the brightest, of today's art is made in Britain.

The immediate source of the current British boom is often identified as Goldsmiths' College; but while there's no underestimating the impact of a particular strain of knowing, in-your-face art that broke out of this south London art school in the late Eighties, the various states of our art cannot be credited to a single source - or generation. While many of Goldsmiths' Class of '88 still have top billing in today's international arena - from Fiona Rae, whose paintings take you on a cresta run through art history via Walt Disney, through Matt Collishaw, who has graduated from photographed gunshot wounds to computer-generated furry flowers, to the ever- ubiquitous Damien Hirst, who has currently diversified into producing mechanised swirl paintings - that's only part of the story.

Equally prominent - and diverse - is a formidable line-up of non-Goldsmiths' thirtysomethings such as Rachel Whiteread, who has recently consolidated her House reputation with a widely acclaimed cast of the space beneath a wooden floor; or Marc Quinn, whose frozen frog at the British Museum and forthcoming exhibition at the Tate prove that there is life after selling Charles Saatchi a self-portrait made from eight pints of your frozen blood. There are the nightmarish paintings of Simon Bill - images crossing Quentin Tarantino with Toys 'R' Us; Simon Patterson's wry re- working of familiar signs and references - from the London Underground to the keys of a typewriter; and the raw autobiographical work of Tracey Emin, who recently packed out venues across America with an idiosyncratic mixture of performance, prose and patchwork.

Now that the cool, brash, boomtime Eighties are behind us, it is acceptable for art to show a little emotion, and increasingly artists are tapping (sometimes literally) into their bodies, their histories and their psyches to examine who and what we are. Cathy de Monchaux's spiky wall-mounted sculpture, for example, combines beauty with cruelty. Helen Chadwick, a pioneer in this field, continues to work with fur and flesh; her fountain of molten chocolate got our tabloids a-flutter but received reverential coverage in Brazil.

British art has always found strength in its diversity - in the 1930s, artists from both abstract and surrealist camps could happily co-exist while their European counterparts were at loggerheads - and that is as true today as ever. It is an art world that can accommodate the squatting, scratching paintings of "Dog Women" by the 60-year-old Paula Rego along with rude-girl Sarah Lucas's arrangements of Y-fronts and a candle.

So, though the nominations by the great and good printed below do throw up one name - that of Mona Hatoum - with startling regularity, it should be remembered that to single out for unique praise just one artist, one way of thinking, can be dangerously perverse. Certainly, the perceived narrowness of the Turner Prize has tended to convert what ought to be a celebration of the art world into a symbolic expression of its divisions; shortlisted artists have often, as a result, been forced into the role of cannon-fodder in an unending conceptual war. We need to remember that applauding one line of thought is not the same thing as identifying the one true path.

Mona Hatoum's work is on show in 'Rites of Passage' at the Tate Gallery, London SW1

Anthony d'Offay Dealer

"Damien Hirst: he has succeeded in bringing before the general public the question of what contemporary art is and can be. He deserves it not only for his work but as a catalyst upon contemporary art in this country, and in the art world and beyond."

Robert Hopper

Director of the Henry Moore Institute and Sculpture Trust

"Stephen Cox: he made an outstanding exhibition here, which clarified an artistic journey of 25 years, from American imported modernism, through the cultures of the Western World with the writings of Adrian Stokes in hand, and on into India. It's an archaeological journey through Western culture going backwards to its roots."

Victoria Miro Dealer

"Two people come to mind immediately. The first is Mona Hatoum who has really come into her own this year with her shows at Venice in the Biennale and at the Tate in Rites of Passage.

"I would also like to see Mark Wallinger considered. People definitely relate to his take on the English class system. There's nothing obscure in racing. There's nothing obscure in his work."

Will Allsop Architect

"Bruce McLean: is an extremely important artist who has never been recognised. When someone is working outside the rules, people dismiss them. I would give it to him on two counts: the history and quality of his work, and the diversification of the work. The art world rewards people whose work shows no diversity at all. Diversification means you might be a naughty boy."

Grenville Davey Winner the Turner Prize 1992

"Willie Docherty: is a thoroughly contemporary artist dealing with important contemporary issues. He should have won it last year. He's of his time."

Marina Warner Writer

"Bobby Baker: she works with the ordinary, the humdrum; her subjects range from shopping to hospitals. There's a strong tradition of comedy into which her work fits. Interestingly, she was at St Martin's with Gilbert & George. Their early work centred around the artist as the living work; she has continued this tradition."

Bernard Jacobson Dealer

"Ian McKeever: it's great to see an artist under 50 who retains such integrity, and he's painting better than ever."

Annely Juda Dealer

"Yuko Shiraishi: very painterly work: minimal but very colourful. She was a nominee for the Jerwood prize - the only abstract artist on the list."

Matthew Slotover Editor, Frieze

"Stephen Pippin: he's been working for 10 or 12 years but he's only been known about for two. His work isabout Englishness and class. There's a kind of obsession with potting sheds. His mechanical things are also wonderful, beautiful objects full of existential metaphors."

Matthew Flowers Dealer

"Peter Howson: for the incredibly powerful exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. He really got involved with the people of Bosnia and portrayed the ghastly things that were happening there. It would be an antidote to what's generally presented for the Turner Prize. There hasn't been a figurative winner since Malcolm Morley in 1984."

David Lee Editor, Art Review

"Ken Currie: he demonstrates that painting can still be a cruelly potent medium, when many people believe it has been killed off by technological and installation art."

Anthony Reynolds Dealer

"It's got to be Mark Wallinger. It's his year. That's all."

Cathy de Monchaux Artist

"Helen Chadwick: she has defined a new language for art. Her work is quite unique."

Jibby Beane Dealer

"Hadrian Piggott: for his soap pieces. He's so exuberant and at the same time terribly formal. He's a perfectionist and, also very important, a serious theorist."

Nicholas Logsdail Dealer

"Julian Opie: his Hayward show was a retrospective show from a 36- year-old, yet it was coherent. You could see a history running through it. Artists should be nominated for this reason rather than because they've made the papers and become groovy and fashionable."

Tim Marlow Editor, tate magazine

"Brad Lochore: the most sensitive and sensual painter. There's an interface with the movie screen in his work."

Maureen Paley Dealer and curator

"Mona Hatoum: her relationship to the body is central and her work is powerful and ambitious work."

Karen Wright Editor, Modern Painters

"John Virtue: is a painter who looks at traditional subjects in a very 'of the moment fashion'.

Martin McGeown Dealer, Cabinet Gallery

"Simon Bill: if the implications of his work were understood they would certainly disqualify him from consideration because it's not based on the idea that art is there to be awarded. Instead of disappearing up his own arse and staying there, he brings us face to face with the peculiar creatures which make up the modern."

Laurent Delaye Dealer

"James Rielly: James digs images out from the back of our head and processes them quietly - murders, wars, visions of horror, sex, disease. He turns them into a quiet but forceful icon. He is both a figurative and a conceptual artist."

Leslie Waddington Dealer

"The Turner Prize is part of the turning of the art world into a circus. My advice to artists at the Waddington Gallery is just not to become involved in it. We're really getting to the point where people don't bother to think for themselves any more."