The Turner Prize has scraped the bottom of its gimmicky barrel

`The truth about the Turner Prize is that is a game played by a small clique of influential people'

THE TURNER Prize has been scraping the barrel for a few years now, but this year the judges have finally succeeded in going through the bottom. Steve McQueen, the least self-advertising and arguably the one with least to advertise among a self-promoting bunch, has won the pounds 20,000 prize, with his pastiche video art.

Whichever body of work had been awarded the prize last night, however, it will leave most of us none the wiser as to what pertinence it has to our lives - let alone how the final decision was arrived at and what criteria were used to judge Steve McQueen's work better than the efforts of the also-rans. It would have been educative indeed to have been a fly on the wall of the Tate director's office yesterday afternoon while the judges - those whose parti pris credentials are scrupulously checked in order that no hint of art recognisable to the majority should slip through to the shortlist - discussed the relative merits of the work on offer. What on earth did they discuss?

They had to decide between four candidates whose visual merits have to be taken on trust or, alternatively, on the say-so of the Tate Gallery's resident snake oil salesmen who are known, grandly, as Curators of Interpretation. What is certain is that the works can't be judged by any known criteria. If they are, they fail. The interminable videos of Steve McQueen, whose plagiarism of Buster Keaton should ensure that the Hollywood legend's estate receives half the prize money, led me to the conclusion, that an artist's video is a film of unspecified length (though rarely short) which is slightly out of focus and in which hardly anything happens. Martin Scorsese McQueen assuredly ain't.

Among the runners up, Steven Pippin, who is about as avant-garde as Ted Heath, used a camera obscura, a phenomenon familiar to the ancient Greeks, to re-shoot the 120-year-old photographs of Edweard Muybridge. Twins Jane and Louise Wilson entered a multi-screen video about a Las Vegas casino which survives on electricity and water supplied to it by the nearby Hoover dam. Nothing more needs to be said about this ponderous, pretentious piece except that, like their other work, it marks a scientific breakthrough in the treatment of insomnia.

Then there is Tracey Emin's now infamous stubborn stains. Tracey is an increasingly endearing ingenue and tour de force. It would have been befitting if she had won - and in a way she has won anyway, her work having generated the most publicity - because she is the personification of contemporary British art in the 1990s, in so far as she is a complete non-entity elevated to international celebrity on the back of personal notoriety alone.

The work hardly matters. It is claimed by the organisers that the prize generates publicity for contemporary art and foments discussion of art at every level. This much is true. I don't believe there can have been a moment in the entire history of art when new work was as familiar to the wider population as it is now; after all, everyone has heard of Damien Hirst. Where the Turner Prize falls down is in its assumption that the prize wins converts. As a contributor to television and radio phone-ins on contemporary art I know the opposite is true.

The monopoly over publicity for contemporary art exerted by the prize has been counter-productive. It has served to confirm the worst expectations of many watching the annual bunfight that contemporary art is some sort of confidence trick, a game played by clever talkers who can see and feel things in situations where most of us cannot.

Others wonder who might be making money out of this annual burlesque. The Turner Prize polarises and entrenches opinion more than it convinces by argument, clear explanation and visual appeal that new art is worth a second look.

It is claimed that the Turner Prize is a popular exhibition. This is true as well. For most of its run, visitors have had to queue to get in, but the non sequitur that long queues imply endorsement and support is not to be believed. Following the blanket publicity generated by the prize, crowds of the curious are barely surprising. On a fairground the same punters might be just as readily teased through the tentflap to see a much advertised pig with two heads and a GCSE in musical farting.

The truth about the Turner Prize is that it is a game played by a small number of influential people at the Tate Gallery, the Arts Council, a handful of West End galleries and collectors which has institutionalised the avant-garde to the exclusion of virtually everything else. This is a form of state censorship operated by a cabal who exclude work on the basis that it fails to conform to their definition of what constitutes quality in contemporary art. The overwhelming majority of artists are thus rendered ineligible for the Turner Prize, as well as exhibitions in state-funded galleries, because what they do is dismissed as conventional and old-fashioned.

It is almost as if to reflect intelligently and perceptively on modern life is the exclusive preserve of those using new media or a marketable gimmick. By these criteria Turner himself would not qualify for his own prize unless. of course, he framed his landscapes with a beading of sheep droppings in order to add a note of bucolic authenticity. Some idea of the narrowness of taste of those who currently administer contemporary art on our behalf is suggested by the fact that until last night, nine of the 14 winners of the Turner Prize have been supplied by two central London galleries.

So what is the Turner Prize? It is an exhibition featuring allegedly "cutting edge" artists whose works leave most of us lost because we have no criteria to judge it. It is organised by a secretive organisation, the Patrons of New Art at the Tate Gallery, a list of whose members has never been published. It is the annual beanfeast of a self-perpetuating coterie who fix virtually everything in the contemporary visual arts in furtherance of their own little fads. It has been moderately amusing while it lasted. But it is long overdue that the diversity of excellence in contemporary art across all age groups is promoted by state institutions with the same conviction that is expended on the avant-garde.

It is to be hoped that the Culture Secretary's recent criticism of the Turner Prize's narrowness heralds a change of direction towards greater openness and inclusion because, as this year's prize show demonstrates, the avant-garde is belly up in the water.

The author is editor of `Art Review'

Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

Arts and Entertainment

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices