Britpop plays the game without a trump card

Damien Hirst and the Turner Prize were made for one another. So who is worth sticking on the short list this time round? By David Cohen
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The Independent Culture
Future art historians will have to slog it out as to whether the Goldsmith generation's neo-conceptualism saved the Turner Prize, which in 1990 was so exhausted it did not make an award, or whether the prize, offered by the Patrons of New Art at the Tate Gallery, gave Britpop its vital oxygen of institutional take-up in its infancy. In 1991 the prize rejuvenated itself with novelty and youth. With pounds 20,000 for the winner (who must be aged under 50), the Turner Prize has become a heavy-handed and uncompromising institutional prescription as to what young art should look like.

The sponsors, Channel 4, are delighted, but as far as media shock, glamour and publicity are concerned, the prize has played its trump card - twice. In 1992, the year Grenville Davey won with his shiny manhole covers, Damien Hirst was shortlisted; last year the animalier-in-formaldehyde won. Now - judging by this year's short list, announced last week - all the jurors can do is go through the motions: find three solid representatives of the "cool school" aesthetic and one stalking horse just to throw conspiracy theorists off the trail. This year, as if to reinforce the point, the latter is one Craigie Horsfield. The other men (it's an all-male list this year) are down-the-line neo-conceptualists, as drab and tendentious as they come, all massively concerned with the semiotics of art and depressingly unconcerned with providing aesthetic experience.

Simon Patterson's "subversion" of the London Underground map or the Periodic Table, substituting predictably unpredictable historical and fictional celebrities in place of the correct data, is amusing for some moments as concrete poetry. Which is more than can be said for Gary Hume's paintings of doors and window frames in the glossy household paint you would use for doors and window frames, or Douglas Gordon's arrested playback over 24 hours of the shower scene from Hitchcock's Psycho. This last gesture is typical of Britpop's knowing collision of cool, art-about-art stand- offishness with a dose of abjection. But the foot soldiers just don't have the same bravura as the general when it comes to achieving the necessary frisson between nonchalance and nihilism. Only Hirst knows how to milk a dead cow for all it is worth.

It is curious that when British sculpture is riding so high internationally, with Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread, another Turner laureate, currently apotheosised as the culmination of "un siecle de sculpture anglaise" at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, this year's Turner Prize short list all work in two dimensions.

Yet this was a sterling year for sculpture shows: think of Dhruva Mistry's gold reliefs at the Royal Academy and Anish Kapoor's sublime white boxes at Lisson. This was also the last year Stephen Cox, born in 1946, was eligible for the prize, and with his stunning show in New Delhi in January, he certainly deserved it.