Is this worth all the sneers?: Art vs Popular Ridicule

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The Independent Online
THE TURNER Prize for contemporary British art has never failed to excite controversy, and now that we know the shortlist for the 1993 award we can say with certainty that this year will be no exception. Whoever wins, the popular reaction (or the reaction of the philistine and uninitiated classes, depending on where you stand) will be indignant, mocking and hostile.

After last year's award to Grenville Davey for compositions in steel and asphalt, readers bombarded newspapers. 'Harsh, ugly and incomprehensible,' said one. 'I look at these artefacts with the same sort of indifference with which I look upon a dustbin outside my home,' declared another. 'May I propose that Mr Gerald Ratner, on stepping down from his firm, should be offered a post as judge for the Turner Prize?' said a third.

The four artists in contention this year are Vong Phaophanit, for his rice furrows; Hannah Collins, for her black-and-white refugee photographs transposed on to canvas; Sean Scully for his striped abstracts and Rachel Whiteread for a full-size moulding of the inside of a room.

The committee is not in the business of appeasement, so it is a list wide open to mockery and abuse. Although the award is not made until 23 November tempers are already shortening, as may well be evident at Wednesday's Turner Prize debate between artists and critics in the Tate Gallery. Vong Phaophanit in particular is already pilloried as the creator of a work which could feed thousands in the Third World.

The prize is worth pounds 20,000, but the winners often give the money away. So why on earth are artists - by definition artists already respected in their own world - prepared to suffer the indignity of winning it? Does it transform their standing? Change their life? Put thousands on the value of their work? The verdict of past winners is an emphatic 'No'.

Malcolm Morley was the first winner, in 1984 when he was still British. He is now an American citizen living in Long Island and cautious on the phone ('Who's calling?' 'The Independent on Sunday.' Pause. 'OK, I'm speaking . . . .'). His opinion of the Turner, which he won for a 'mini-retrospective' of his paintings spanning 20 years, is less than euphoric.

'When the prize was announced, I was in New York, on the Bowery. When this guy who was in charge of culture in London called and said I'd won, I was looking at two bums fighting. I didn't like it at all - the Turner Prize, I mean. I thought the shortlist idea rather nasty; it creates the idea that there are three losers, though actually, as it turns out, fortunately there are so few artists in England that eventually everybody will get it. It wasn't very real for me. I gave the money (then pounds 10,000) to my mother.'

One of 1984's 'three losers' was Howard Hodgkin, who became 1985's winner (with A Small Thing But My Own, a tiny painting submitted, he said, 'not without polemical intent').

'Artists themselves, I think, don't really know what happens to them (as a result of winning the Turner),' he said. 'But I think the great thing about the Turner Prize this time around is that the exhibition has become much more important than it was when I won it. The people on the list have little exhibitions of their own.'

The 1986 prize, on the other hand, brought Gilbert and George a different pleasure: 'It thrilled all of our supporters and infuriated our enemies - continues to, in fact.'

The public scepticism may well have made Turner winners a trifle sardonic in retrospect. Mr Morley, who has lived in the United States since 1957, certainly does not attribute to it any subsequent change that may have occurred in his work or in its reception. 'It's done to create a certain kind of horse-race excitement,' he said. 'The British love horse-racing and they turn everything into horse-racing, basically. I've never discussed the prize with other artists, though I once thought it would be a nice idea to have a Turner Prize Old Boys' Club - the British love an old boys' club - whose members could take subsequent winners to lunch or dinner. Nothing came of it.'

According to Anish Kapoor, the 1991 winner with an exhibit in sandstone and pigment: 'The Turner's a nice bit of recognition on one level. In the immediate aftermath of the prize and the ceremony and all that, inevitably a wider public comes to know of your work, but there is no dramatic change. A brief moment of exposure and then things quickly settle back again.'

His exhibitions at the Biennale of Venice and other big shows had attracted the Turner Prize, which was simply 'a little pat on the back, but in terms of the market it doesn't really make that much difference'. While he had reservations about the 'razzmatazz' surrounding 'a serious business', he thought the media misguided in 'putting the whole thing down'.

Mr Kapoor, an Indian, says he is using his prize money to set up a fund for artists working on the subcontinent. 'I feel that's my duty.'

To Grenville Davey, last year's winner ('the most boring ever', a newspaper critic said), the Turner is 'a strange animal. It puts people under a lot of stress, but that's not such a bad thing. You can treat it a little tongue-in-cheek if it's giving you too much hassle. And if you win, it's a bit off the mark to say it will change your life overnight. What it does is to bring your whole activity into focus.' It also enabled him to pay off a pounds 13,000 overdraft and enjoy a seven-week break 'in a good hotel in St Ives'.

Again it is difficult to measure the Turner's impact on his career. 'Last year I was very busy anyway.'

Mr Davey was certain that the artists on this year's shortlist are 'similarly busy'. He declined to offer an opinion on their work, except to say: 'I know Vong really well. Great cook, actually]'

(Photograph omitted)