Visual Arts: Oh come on, get a grip...

There's this annual exhibition. It's usually four artists in their thirties, it's chosen by judges who never argue in public. It's called the Turner Prize shortlist. See it for what it is, says Tom Lubbock
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It's hard to believe that the Turner Prize now makes many hearts beat faster. Everyone knows the score, and all the reactions it generates look entirely pro forma. Each year the media obligingly declares it "controversial". And each year the Tate Gallery responds with statements and accompanying literature of such administrative froideur that you feel like saying: oh come on, it's not that boring. But still it is a little boring, and I think everyone could settle down if that was simply admitted.

One aspect of this is the fact that the award itself is no big deal to anyone. Compared to the Booker Prize, the question of who's going actually to win the Turner Prize is a minor matter. The main thing is the shortlist, for which the prize is mere focus and pretext. And the Tate probably wouldn't mind dropping the sordid, competitive side of it altogether, if there were some other effective way to catch the public eye for a handful of contemporary artists - always four nowadays, though there's nothing in the rules to require this number.

That's really the only trouble with the Turner Prize, the way it has an agenda which is perfectly clear but never quite made explicit. Of course there's a policy to favour some kinds of art over others. And of course it's suspicious that (unlike the Booker) the judges never break ranks and dissociate themselves from their colleagues' decisions, or confess it's been a thin year all round; and concomitantly that (unlike the Booker) the judges are always chosen solidly from within the art world with never a distinguished layperson included who might not be quite reliable in their tastes.

But if these points could somehow be openly established, then the thing could be more easily accepted as what it obviously is: a showcase for four artists, generally in their thirties, using non-traditional media and methods, reflecting the curatorial consensus with no rank outsiders considered. Granted, that restricted rubric wouldn't have the big fanfare of "the nation's top art prize". But it would be honest. It would announce the relevant terms of judgement. It would even allow the likelihood that some years won't offer such rich pickings.

This year, for example. Not that the shortlist exhibition is a bad show, exactly. The general impression is of art that neither fails nor excels, but simply does the job; perfectly adequate, perfectly competent. Now it may seem odd to talk of competence in a contemporary art context, where every artist is a lone operator and the concept of "skills" doesn't apply. But in this art too, though it seems so diverse, there are basic, shared skills: giving objects a curious mental resonance, say, and producing a paradoxical reaction in the viewer. You can't directly teach them, at least not in the way you can teach drawing, and a "how-to" manual would seem to be a satire - but that only reflects the way that absolute originality is assumed to be the bottom line here. Wrongly. For you can certainly learn these skills, and then deploy them with more or less talent.

The exhibition has one fine wonder, Cornelia Parker's Mass. This is a multitude of particles of charred wood, suspended (on threads) mid-air, in cube formation, larger bits in the centre, smaller ones on the periphery, giving it an outward movement, so that the whole thing is like the moment of an explosion held in a box. Explosion isn't quite right, though. It's more like an instantaneous dematerialisation - not with a bang but a ping. It's lovely how it keeps on being sudden. One day, perhaps, someone could get together all the great apparitional hits of recent years: Whiteread's room, Gormley's vista of clay-folk, Wilson's sump-oil piece, and this work too. By sheer impact and evident public address, it would make the kind of winning propaganda for current art that the Turner Prize strives for and seldom delivers.

In Parker's other pieces, we move from wonder to something more standard. The theme of traces and remains continues on a smaller scale - the odd residues of things, presented in frames or glass boxes, a head of hair clippings, the filament of vinyl cut from a record groove, the marks of a diamond engagement ring scratched on glass, and some real strangenesses like a silver teaspoon stretched into a wire the length of Niagara Falls. You often have to read the label to get the resonance of absent presence, but that doesn't worry me. The trouble is that traces and absent presences is a very stock theme; and while Parker gives it an idiosyncratic, Victorian- feeling twist, a familiar old theme and set of responses it stays.

Christine Borland's work goes the same way. The treatments are new and can be piquant but you know just where it's coming from. The Dead Teach the Living has a group of human heads on plinths, cast very pure-looking in white plastic, but a moment's inspection reveals that they're actually physiognomic specimens demonstrating probably racial types, and therefore deeply sinister (or if you don't see it, a wall-text tells you, and that they're cast from models found in a German museum).

Two things to note. One is that the viewer response "looks nice but turns out nasty" is another well-worn art-riff. The other is that physiognomic "science" and its pernicious uses and results have become a favourite cultural studies topic which there are a lot of books about. I suppose the effect does depend on what's new to you, ideas-wise. It's just bad luck if you've read some of these books, because it leaves The Dead Teach the Living, and Borland's other dodgy science-based pieces, as only art- footnotes to a thriving area of criticism.

Gillian Wearing does videos and photos about collisions of private life and public exposure, spontaneity and performance, and though that description trips off the tongue a bit too easily - again, we know where we are, we've seen a few plays and films dealing with these matters - the results can get under the skin effectively. Her best thing is probably the video of children's confessions being lip-synched by adults, which is a good deal more edgy than that Dennis Potter drama with Colin Welland in shorts, and it's currently on view in "Sensation". Here there's another adult- child work, Sacha and Mum, in which a mother and grown-up daughter are locked in an unending physical tussle, veering rapidly from cuddling to bullying to near-violence and back again so you can hardly tell the difference. The film plays backwards to further disorient.

Disorient and trouble it does, partly because the daughter in her underwear seems such a helpless victim (special needs?), partly because (but of course) the action just goes on with no explanation or denouement. But this is a problem too, because it leaves you only with the thought that parent-child relationships are fraught, treacherous and double-binding, a thought which surely everyone will agree they have had before. It's a work that, as they say, "asks questions". But when the questions in question are up and running already, this isn't the dynamic thing it wants to be. In fact, the "asking questions" nostrum has become a disabling shibboleth: sounds very open and stimulating, ends up often in vacancy.

Angela Bulloch asks some questions too. Her large construction of multi- coloured donut-shaped poufs, which set off noises when you sit or lie on them, asks questions about the difference between art and soft-furnishings, and viewing and participating, but I really can't see what the point of these questions is. It introduces a little oasis of work-spectator "democracy" into the gallery, but it makes me think of those restaurants that have a "mix your own salad" counter. Just try shifting the work around the floor a little, and you'll see how far the gallery attendants will let democracy go. Or are the limits of participation more the object? And don't we know these limits already? No, this isn't good. But on that issue, with so much art operating on the principle that "the spectator makes the work" (a principle which can have very rich results too), it seems right that some year or other the Turner Prize too should turn its sights round and be awarded to the Unknown Viewer. It might perk things up.

At the Tate Gallery, London SW1 (0171-887 8000) to 18 Jan