UNDERRATED / What do prizes make? Points: The case for prizes

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It's the prize season again. We've had the Perrier and the Mercury, the Gramophone Awards winners are announced tomorrow, and the annual row over the Booker Prize shortlist is already well under way.

That, in many ways, is the whole purpose of prizes - to stir up hatred and contempt. When the artists shortlisted for the Turner Prize finally exhibit their works in the Tate, we can look forward with confidence to a familiar chorus of complaint: these are bad choices, boring choices, inexcusably elitist choices.

The Turner is, in many ways, the perfect distillation of all that is good and bad in cultural prizes. It routinely addresses a narrow, metropolitan agenda - which may be why prize-winners have historically been spotted exhibiting in Turkey or Venice, not in little galleries in the Portobello Road or North Wales. The consequences can be unfortunate - while a young, curious audience is increasingly attracted by the Turner's ethos, other audiences drift off, alienated, unaware that there are good things going on in galleries up and down the country, in languages which they are ready to understand.

But then, prizes in general are inimical to the relaxed, consensual relativism which looks, at first sight, to be the critic's ideal state of mind - intelligent, impartial and informed, ready to be enthused and enlightened by any work of merit within any given genre. And this kind of non-partisan enthusiasm can only, in the end, neuter both artist and viewer: it can only be sustained by someone who has been left fundamentally unchanged by each of those occasional enthusiasms and enlightenments.

It is only a month or so since exactly the criticisms routinely levelled at the Turner shortlist were levelled at the Jerwood Painting Prize. The irony is sweet: this is a prize, established under the aegis of Modern Painters magazine and the Daily Telegraph, which sets out to challenge the perceived bias, which the Turner typifies, against older artists and, in particular, painters. So it is self-consciously reactionary, initiated by people who believed not only that the Turner Prize was wrong, but wrong about something important.

And that brings us to the heart of what is good about prizes. When I say they are about hatred and contempt, I don't mean to revel simple-mindedly in confrontation. But our assumption that 'culture' is intimately bound up with 'civilisation' implies a level of seriousness which makes routine civility look like a distraction, and a dangerous one at that. If culture is to be about more than genteel refinement, the divisions within the cultural community need to be taken every bit as seriously as those in politics. It's not a question of rubbing along together, it's a question of winning the argument.

Of course, cultural prizes have a double life: they are both devices for honouring those artists whose values we admire, and for marketing a particular industry to an ignorant or even hostile audience. Certainly, they serve to focus the public's wandering attention for long enough to introduce them to new names and ideas, and to reassure us that these artists are at least worth our consideration. As a result, there is always pressure on the prize- givers to tailor their decisions to serve the perceived interests of the market. The Mercury Prize was lambasted for, as Pat Kane put it, allowing the music industry to pretend that it was about something other than money; the Booker is under attack because its shortlisted titles are proving difficult to sell. Good. These are industries which can only flourish if, in the long run, outsiders can perceive them to be about something more than merchandising. Yes, business-driven events like the Brits or the Oscars may sell singles or seats, but they can't buy loyalty. That only comes when the viewer moves on from casual admiration of a product to passionate identification with a cause. Which is why, from my relaxed, relativist position, I feel equally driven to defend the contradictory virtues of the Turner, the Jerwood, and every other narrow-minded prize.