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'