How political should painting prizes be? This year's Jerwood Prize has been won by Gary Hume, one of the stars of the Royal Academy's current "Sensation" show, and a favourite of advertising tycoon Charles Saatchi. Hume, who made a name for himself painting large doors in a deadpan way, has shown signs of allowing his talent to develop in recent years. He actually seems to want to increase his stock of visual ideas (a thing most Young British Artists shy away from), and has visibly enlarged his technical range and achievement. His feeling for colour and pattern has improved so much that some of his larger works in "Sensation" run the risk of looking like the Matisse-inspired abstracts of Royal Academician Jennifer Durrant. Almost painterly, in other words. Could they be some reaffirmation of the power of painting? That it has a future after all?
At pounds 30,000, the Prize is a valuable one - to be set against the Turner's pounds 20,000 jackpot - and, for once, it looks as if the prize money will be fully enjoyed by its recipient. Since its inception in 1994, no one artist has been able to spend all the Jerwood loot. The first winner was Craigie Aitchison, whose dealer interpreted the prize as a simple business transaction, and took his usual 50 per cent commission. The Jerwood organisers hastily changed the rules, but in its second year the judges couldn't make up their minds: the prize was split between Patrick Caulfield and Maggi Hambling. And while the 1996 winner John Hubbard could have taken the cash, he decided to give it to the nation to buy art. So no one till now has benefited by more than pounds 15,000; it's almost as if the prize were spooked.
The two most important factors in assessing a prize's relevance are the short list and the judges. For years, it looked as if the Jerwood was simply there to promote traditional virtues in painting, to encourage and keep alive the great tradition of figurative art. The winners, all highly distinguished artists, were neverthelsss of a certain age, with Hambling the youngest at 49. Younger artists were sometimes short-listed, but there was an air of tokenism about it, and none, of course, won. This year's short list, however, was dominated by the young. The most senior artist on it was the maverick expressionist Rose Wylie (born 1934). The rest, apart from Madeleine Strindberg at 40-odd, are bright young things.
Now look at the judges: the most notable inclusion is that of Iwona Blazwick, cutting-edge curator, editor at Phaidon Prees, and about to take up a plum appointment as curator at the Tate Bankside. It was a coup by the Jerwood Foundation to get her on board, aud the short list must take its tone from her. Hence the youth, and the decision to nominate Hume the winner. It is all part of what the inimitable Brian Sewell would call "the Serota tendency". It's good to see promising young painters like Louise Hopkins and James Rielly on the list - it means that at least some of the judges beside Blazwick are awake. Yet the inclusion of so many artists collected by Saatchi, and the premier position of Gary Hume, do suggest a worrying pattern.
Perhaps the name Saatchi should be substituted for Serota in the said tendency. As he buys and sells, Charles Saatchi is said to wield immense power over the lives and careers of many of today's young artists of a certain type. He has helped to make a handful of them very well-known indeed, a "Sensation" even. My only concern is that the work of the YBAs does not crowd out alternative ways of making art. Painting is a rich resource of endless possibilities. Rather than being constrained and categorised, it should be a broad church. It's good to find Rose Wylie on the Jerwood short list, two-thirds of which is, interestingly, female. But I would like to see a greater mix of generations and of styles to demonstrate more fully the genuine health and general perkiness of painting today.
Work by all nine short-listed artists is on show at the Lethaby Galleries, Central Saint Martins, Southampton Row, London WC1 until 18 Oct