Behind the scenes at the museum

Another month, another art prize. Last week it was the Vincent in Maastricht. But does the world really need so many? And who gets to choose the winners anyway?
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The Independent Online

Art prizes sometimes make you wonder. Why is there always so much cant, hype and secrecy? Last week, a new one was added to the list: the Vincent van Gogh biannual award for contemporary art in Europe, open to all European artists between the ages of 35 and 45. Neither Young Turks ( vide Turner, Beck's Futures) nor lifetime achievers ( vide Jerwood) need apply. This one is for those desperately neglected in-betweens, the in-the-turbulent-swim mid-careerists.

Art prizes sometimes make you wonder. Why is there always so much cant, hype and secrecy? Last week, a new one was added to the list: the Vincent van Gogh biannual award for contemporary art in Europe, open to all European artists between the ages of 35 and 45. Neither Young Turks ( vide Turner, Beck's Futures) nor lifetime achievers ( vide Jerwood) need apply. This one is for those desperately neglected in-betweens, the in-the-turbulent-swim mid-careerists.

The award, which was won by the Finnish video artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila for work which, in the words of Sir Nicholas Serota, ubiquitous president of juries of this kind, has created "a new grammar of the moving image", is worth 50,000 euros. Bank it swiftly, Ms Ahtila.

The award ceremony, as stiff and proud as Humpty Dumpty could ever have imagined, took place at the festhalle in the ancient Dutch city of Maastricht, in that very same provincial government building where the euro was brought to birth - what a difficult, brawling infant that one proved to be, too! - in 1992 by a team of anxious, though proud, eurocrats. The heat was intense in that room this week - surely a measure of the amount of hot air which was expelled. Thus is history made - and subsequently remade.

There was much bombastic talk about history and art during the award ceremony; much ranting about bringing European art to the forefront; of how The Vincent will "enhance communication" in a free, united and peaceful Europe. Ho, hum. We shall see.

One of the oddest aspects of the prize was the choice of shortlisted artists: Miroslaw Balka (Poland), Oladele Ajiboye Bamgboye (United Kingdom), Carsten Holler (Germany), Pedro Cabrita Reis (Portugal), Luc Tuymans (Belgium), and the aforementioned winner. Nicholas Serota's speech was a mind-numbing litany of praise, with one hyperbole exceeding another. Phrases such as "most unique", "close to perfection", "greatest revelation" filled the air. Did the prize-winner really deserve so much praise?

The experience of looking at the exhibition of sculptures, paintings and videos by the shortlisted artists in the nearby Bonnefanten Museum, which will be hosting the prize in perpetuity, suggested not. In spite of the fact that two of them were impressive - Luc Tuymans' strange portraits and landscapes from which all colour seems to be creeping away, as if the images find being out in the world an almost intolerably exposing experience; and Miroslaw Balka's somewhat Beuys-like sculptures - there is an overall disappointing thinness about the work.

Could this really be the very best which Europe has to offer? If so, God spare European civilisation.

How did these artists get shortlisted in the first place? To the outsider, the process of choosing one artist rather than another seems so subjective, so arbitrary, so easily agenda-driven - in short, so unlike the business of assessing the prowess of, say, an athlete. There was one other matter, too. A sentence I had read in a press release which troubled me greatly. It said that the artists were judged on both a total body of work and on their critical statements about that work. Could this really be true?

Artists' "critical statements" are, generally speaking, not worth the paper they're written on. They're usually pretentious artbabble of the worst possible kind, and they are also, understandably enough, special pleading. Who but a nut would apologise? Artists talk up the significance of their own work. The fact is, though, that good art doesn't need pretentious artspeak. It can stand alone.

I put these questions to a freelance curator called Barbara Vanderlinden, one of the two people who were responsible for compiling The Vincent award shortlist. I asked her to describe to me exactly the processes that she went through. How did she and her colleague Vincente Tidoli, of the Museo Serralves in Porto, actually choose what they chose?

Suddenly, as if by magic, a strange miasma seemed to fall between us. The miasma was her own words. I heard her talk about the fact that the award was made to artists who had created significant bodies of work in the 1990s, and that they had also been chosen because their work seemed to question critically the age through which they'd lived.

But how exactly were these artists chosen? Who recommended whom? Who put the call through from X or Y? No answer. The inclusion of one artist in particular had troubled me, the Nigerian-born representative of the United Kingdom. Oladele Ajiboye Bambgoye's works, though fairly interesting, didn't seem to me to have reached a sufficient level of maturity for him to be represented here. Nor had he even had a single show of work in a commercial gallery in the United Kingdom - that omission will be corrected later this month when a selection goes on display at Anne Faggionato in Dering Street, London W1. For all that, Serota had assured us that Bambgoye's work had certainly proven him to be "one of the most intriguing artists within the multicultural debate". Where was the evidence, though? Exactly how good is intriguing? Who had been rooting for him? I raised the matter with Alexander van Grevenstein, the director of the Bonnefanten Museum, that evening in Klinkers Café Bar, and he informed me, without a second's hesitation, that Bambgoye's work had been chosen for political reasons. So now we know.

And had there been any kind of a public consultation exercise? Yes, of a rather lame and limited kind. Images had been put on a website; people had been asked to register their preferences. Barbara Vanderlinden raised her eyebrows when she heard about this. It was news to her. So much for public consultation.

Most troubling of all, though, was this sense that the work was unequal to all the trumpeting that was going on. This overwhelming sense of dullness took me straight back to last year's Turner Prize. I felt similarly about that. What are the issues here? They are to do with publicity, public accountability, intrinsic value and the ubiquitous presence of Nicholas Serota.

Art prizes exist in order to bring attention to the museums which sponsor them, and to increase the number of visitors. In the case of the Turner, largely thanks to the link with Channel 4, this has worked spectacularly well. If visitor numbers increase, the argument for generous public funding looks stronger. The Bonnefanten, a young museum created just five years ago, is doing well out of The Vincent, too. The director tells me that since the shortlist show opened on 2 June, 25,000 visitors have passed through the door.

Art prizes also exist in order to create artworks to fill the spaces of the museums which sponsor them. But what will happen to these works later? It's difficult to say. Most of the works in The Vincent show - Pedro Reis's massive door frames, the video pieces - can scarcely be housed anywhere other than in a museum or similar public space (with the exception of the paintings of Luc Tuymans, which were modest in scale). These are certainly not animals which can be domesticated.

Does this matter? You can't really condemn a work of art for being monumental in scale. In another way it does, however.

Consider the difference between an art prize such as The Vincent and the Booker Prize for fiction. A book wins the award - and attracts our insatiable curiosity. We can then buy it for a relatively modest outlay. Having bought it, we can test the judgement of those who awarded it the prize by reading it. We can experience what they have experienced. We can appropriate it emotionally. It can be assimilated into our domestic circumstances.

With an art prize such as the Turner, things are quite different. These works, by and large, have been created to inhabit museums. They are often large and cumbersome. Perhaps they are titillatingly repulsive, too. And in spite of the fact that increasing numbers of visitors throng the Tate to stare at the Turner contenders, that is still a tiny percentage of the general public. Most people get to know about contemporary art second-hand, through images - and the scandalised stories which justify their presence - in newspapers. Dealers such as Jay Jopling - who used to feed stories of this kind to the tabloid press - points to this phenomenon as evidence of the fact that the general public really cares about and even holds strong opinions on modern art in ways they never did in the past.

It's nothing of the kind. Anyone who looks at a painting knows that there is a world of difference between seeing it in actuality and staring at a reproduction. What this kind of hype provokes is a prurient interest in artists' private lives. They are not really artists but minor celebrities straight out of Hello! magazine. That's what art prizes are good for, to bring about, once and for all, Warhol's dream of 15 minutes of fame.

And then there is the confusing issue of what works of art are "really" worth, of their value in the market-place, of the strangely shifting relationship between mammon and perceived worth. Tracey Emin's bed was, for a time, the subject of ridicule and scandal. Then, some months later, Charles Saatchi came along, and this object of outrage was now said to be worth the equivalent of the annual salary of the head of the French department in a Suffolk comprehensive school. Later on, Saatchi may dispose of that same object for a derisory proportion of what he paid for it - but by that time the story is no longer news. We don't even notice.

The museum-sponsored world of art prizes helps to nurture this strange world of artspeak, trickery, secrecy and topsy-turvy values. Artists appear as if from nowhere and Serota - he who announced a few years ago that sculpture and painting were dead - pronounces them great, and their flimsy reputations are made. Maybe naughty Nick should stop doing this sort of thing for a while, flattering though it may be to be called Sir Nicholas in the ancient city of Maastricht, home of the euro, now and forever more, amen.