'This seven-ton pile of rice could make a meal for 100,000 people. But is it art?' (Headline in The Daily Telegraph)
'If I stood in the middle of the road and took my trousers down, I'd attract the same attention and I'd only charge a tenner. Artists - they're all crackpots aren't they, no wonder they go cutting their ears off.' (A Man in the Street, quoted in The Independent on Sunday under the headline 'Is this art?')
'If there's a dead cow and a heap of scrap metal, it must be the Turner Prize again.' (The Sunday Times).
And that is just the posh papers. If I had a pound for every time the question 'But is it art?' had been voiced in newsprint and on the air since the 1993 Turner Prize shortlist was announced, I might have made more money than Rachel Whiteread did last night when she won it. Public discussion of art, it may be said, is the last thing that the prize has promoted. Vituperation, spleen, the widening of rifts between the various bitter factions that make up the British art world and the endless asking of that same old question, 'But is it art?': these are what it promotes. But is that a reason to get rid of it? Perhaps not.
The Turner Prize does serve an extremely useful function even if it was not the one it was originally intended to serve. It focuses attention on how almost primevally backward, how dull, how embarrassingly narrow-minded and ill-informed most discussion of contemporary art in this country remains. It brings the myriad dullards, who don't know much about art but know what they like (it always turns out to be portraits and landscapes) creeping out of the woodwork and into the limelight - and reveals them, resplendent, in all their unutterable boringness.
These people tend not to be actual art critics (one of the most interesting things the Turner Prize does is prompt people who never visit modern art exhibitions in the normal course of their lives to pronounce grandly on the subject) which may partly explain why they behave as if the entire history of 20th- century art had either never happened or had been a terrible aberration. This is the only way to explain the extraordinary persistence with which they continue to be shocked by, say, sculptures made out of unconventional materials more than half a century after Picasso made his famous bull's head out of the seat and handlebars of a bicycle.
I wonder what their response to Picasso would be if he were up for the Turner Prize. Well, no, I don't wonder, I know: 'But is it art?'
The answer is yes. It may be good art (in Picasso's case it is) or not so good (in the case of Vong Phaophanit's rice sculpture it is debatable) but like it or not it is all art. So why do British people, unlike people in the rest of Europe, continue to be obsessed with the question of whether art is art or not? Perhaps because it enables them to conceal a very British fear: the fear of responding to art, the fear of feelings (yuk) and a corresponding reluctance to articulate them. If you can decide that something is not art at all then (phew) you are safe from all that.
I persist in the belief that people will eventually get fed up with the level of debate about contemporary art in Britain, and that eventually they will start asking another question. Not 'Is this art?' but 'Is this the only way to talk and think about art?' And if the Turner Prize helps in however small a way to hasten that moment, then it is more of a good than a bad thing.Reuse content