Make us gawp and stretch our eyes

Since prizes can't get it right, they might at least recognise their obligation to provide entertainment

WHAT IS the point of prizes? I mean, in practice they are remarkably ineffective things, whether we are talking about the Gramophone Awards, the Booker Prize, or the Turner Prize. Failure to win a prize has never prevented anyone from making their way, or stopped excellence from being recognised; conversely, when a prize is given merely for good behaviour, or because the poor chap's wife isn't very well, the fact that a jury thought something worth giving a few thousand pounds to has never stopped it sliding into the usual oblivion.

Who cares, now, what prizes The Mask of Orpheus won for Birtwistle, or could tell you with any certainty whether Bruce Chatwin ever won the Booker, or could think of any concrete benefits to his career Howard Hodgkin accrued from winning the Turner Prize?

Art, of course, makes its way, and even the biggest of prizes can no more sustain a hopeless case than it can repress excellence by ignoring it. All prizes gain what credibility and currency they have not by the size of the prize, or the glamour of the televised dinner, but by the interest of the choice. Even the Nobel Prize for literature was, for decades, a bad joke due to its habit of predictably rewarding the local talent, and many of the early winners are no longer read even in Sweden.

If a prize gets something spectacularly wrong repeatedly, it loses any kind of credibility; if, on the other hand, like the Booker Prize in recent years, it decides to give out money on the basis of 10- or 20-year-old achievements, it quickly becomes an irrelevance. Fifteen years ago, the Booker was interested in the young Salman Rushdie; now, it is still sucking up to the same generation, and the fact that the game has been raised and gone elsewhere has left the prize with a fatal air of predictable mediocrity.

The point of prizes in general is only secondarily to recognise excellence. The real purpose, as everyone of any sense involved with them quickly comes to think, is just as a piece of publicity. I'm not proposing that everyone involved should stop worrying whether they are rewarding good or serious work, but I do think that, since prizes can't get it right, they might at least recognise their obligation to provide a bit of entertainment.

The Turner Prize's annual exhibition of work by the short-listed artists opened this week at the Tate. From slightly fusty beginnings, it has turned into by far the most enjoyable and interesting of British prizes, and serves a genuinely useful purpose. The radical decision to impose an upper age limit of 40 on the entrants has richly paid off in the last few years, and a splendidly carnival air has settled over the whole business. The year Tracey Emin got drunk! The year Damien Hirst didn't win! Have you seen the Underground map and the exploded church and the enormous pile of rice and the elephant pooh?

Perhaps you have no sense of fun, or think that prizes are there to reward great art. Me, I've judged a few prizes in my time, and can assure you that the way prize committees work, they could not be trusted to prefer Matisse to Bouguereau unless you told them that Matisse was getting on a bit, was not very well, and had never been given a prize.

The Turner Prize is absolutely right to prefer the blunt and spectacular end of contemporary art, and, in the interests of the whole of the art scene, to focus public attention on that end of it that is most like a party, and let the publicity do the rest. The Daily Telegraph's "arts correspondent" will, doubtless, file exactly the same sort of ridiculous piece he filed last year; the crowds will wander in, be amused and entertained, remember a couple of names. And the process of warm engagement between the avant garde and the public will continue, to everyone's benefit.

The odd thing is that, this year, the Turner panel have pulled off the neat trick of going for the right sort of extrovert artist, and picking some genuinely brilliant stuff. Chris Ofili is the most wonderful eclectic, with his glitter and vulgar showiness and sucking undertow of hermetic African homage; Cathy de Monchaux lives up to her name, fit for an Angela Carter heroine, with her alien dominatrix constructions; Sam Taylor-Wood's divinely glamorous tableaux, the very essence of smart young London, are perfectly irresistible with their hints of grand narrative and tragedy; and Tacita Dean's is a mysterious, impermanent vision, suggesting so much more than it shows.

It is a great list, which would tempt anyone with eyes and curiosity. As all prizes should, the Turner gives the appearance of rewarding achievement, when what it is really doing is luring in the unsuspecting audience with outrage, spectacle, fun, and something amazingly new.

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