The walking sculptor Richard Long was shortlisted for the first Turner Prize in 1984. He didn't win. He was shortlisted again in 1987, but again without success. He was shortlisted again in 1988, but again the award eluded him. He was shortlisted again in 1989, and by then the momentum seems to have become irresistible, and he won. In 1990 the Turner Prize was suspended, for lack of a sponsor. Since its reconstitution in 1991, it has tried to avoid being a career-achievement award for a strongly established artist. A rule states that nobody over 50 is eligible. An unwritten rule ensures that an artist is hardly ever shortlisted more than once.
But perhaps in honour of his being the most shortlisted artist in the award's history, it is a work by Long that first greets the visitor to Turner Prize: A Retrospective, which opens today at Tate Britain. On the dark floor of the central Duveen Galleries is White Water Line, a large undulating doodle-spatter made from quantities of creamy river mud poured straight out onto the stone. It was the work that Long exhibited in the Tate the year that he finally won.
Next year Liverpool is European City of Culture, and as a curtain-raiser, this year's Turner exhibition will open at Tate Liverpool later this month. So in the prize's usual slot at Tate Britain is this memorial show. It's a mixture, as you would expect – oil paintings and painted steel sculptures; three big darkened video-projection chambers; an empty gallery, with Martin Creed's lights going on and off; photos, pots, wall diagrams; a large wooden shed. Each of the 21 winners shows one, two, or three pieces, dating from the year of their victory.
Altogether, it creates the kind of spectacle you don't usually get in this country, though common enough in the average German Künsthalle: room after room of miscellaneous international contemporary art, everything very cleanly shown, and with clear space around it. The display is unobtrusive, though not exactly rousing. The works appear like a succession of solid trophies, each one asking above all to be recognised: some Hirsts, some cut-up cows, a couple of Deacons, a room of Gormley body casts, a big Gilbert and George wall-piece – one of each, so to speak.
You might also expect the show to have a timeline function, laying out in partial snapshots the progress of British art over the last quarter-century. It's not quite like that. Nothing looks particularly dated, for the simple reason that many artists go on doing more or less the same thing for decades. That, after all was why it was funny for Richard Long to be repeatedly shortlisted. There would have been nothing odd about it if, in each of those four years, Long had made an outstanding new work. And if he'd been a novelist, it might have been conceivable. But Long had just gone on doing what he did, and has continued to do subsequently. The Turner can never really be like its model, the Booker, a prize for particular works rather than general achievement. Artists' careers are too steady, without enough contrast between good years and bad years. The reluctance since 1991 to re-shortlist is a recognition of the fact that there is seldom a reason why an artist should be put up in one year as opposed to another.
Still, the retrospective has its uses. For instance, it reminds one of the existence of Grenville Davey, who won the prize in 1992, and since then, as far as I'm aware, has been unheard of. I don't know why. His work here, steel forms that stand on a brink between minimalism and functionality, is the strongest sculpture.
On the other hand, the opportunity to see some of these works again is also an opportunity to realise that they don't sustain a second viewing. Douglas Gordon's video projection showing the transformation scene from the 1931 film of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – and the same sequence in negative on an opposite screen – is an elegant play on good and evil, black and white. But you get it all the first time you see it.
At 28, Gordon was the youngest-ever winner. But it's often assumed that before the "no oldies" rule was introduced in 1991, the winners were all old codgers – and afterwards, all untried kids. The average age of the winner up to 1989 was 45. The average age since then has been 34. Only two over 50s have ever won: the first two winners, Malcolm Morley and Howard Hodgkin.
Since any prize must be partly judged by its omissions, here are some artists who have not won the Turner, and are now either dead or too old to qualify: Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, Paula Rego, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Helen Chadwick, Susan Hiller. They're not all my favourites, just artists with a reasonable claim. Two of them, Rego and Hiller, have produced their most notable work since they turned 50. The "no oldies" rule should be deleted.
The most elusive unwritten rule of the prize concerns genre. It's clear that a certain kind of art is eligible and a certain kind is not. But how to define it? People, friend and foe, use hopelessly vague words like "innovative", "trendy", "cutting-edge", "conceptual". Some people ask: where are the painters? As for that, 12 artists who could definitely be classified as painters have been shortlisted since 1991, and three have won: Chris Ofili, Keith Tyson and Tomma Abts. But still, some types of painting would be considered too unsophisticated to qualify.
I was on the new Northern Art Prize jury recently and they did have a rubric concerning genre, about "engaging with current critical debates", an unfortunate and ambiguous rule that happily we didn't have to interpret because we already had a longlist to pick from. The Turner has no longlist. It enforces its unstated artistic protocols through its choice of jurors and their general peer-group understanding that carving otters in soapstone, say, is not something that people like us take seriously. The situation is hardly extraordinary. A state art prize will tend to require conformity to the ruling canons of taste.
Another objection is to wonder how one can make a choice between the very disparate kinds of work that do get shortlisted. This doesn't seem much of a problem to me. Simply employ the negative criterion of boringness. Here are four imaginations at work. Which seems the least dull? The least cliché-ridden? There isn't always an obvious answer, but the principle is easy to apply.
But to put the stress on winners, as this show does, is strange. The object of the Turner Prize isn't to foster talent through reward. The competitive aspect is only the public lure. The Turner is designed as an instrument of publicity – for the Tate, for contemporary art, and for the sponsor.
In short, the Turner is about the media, without whose coverage it would cease to exist. It is the media that have made it "one of the most important and prestigious awards for visual arts in Europe". Perhaps only the British media – philistine, controversy-hungry, and much berated by arty types for being so – could have had this effect.
A Turner retrospective should not therefore consist of particular works, mere bagatelles in the great game of attention-seeking. It should consist of pages from newspapers, cartoons, TV and radio clips, and people claiming to be disgusted. That's what kept the show on the road.
Turner Prize: A Retrospective – Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1; every day to 6 January; admission £11 with concessions
The Turner Prize: a history
By Mary Morgan
The Turner Prize is an annual event open to any British artist under the age of 50, and is awarded on the basis of outstanding work. It owes its name to the legacy of JMW Turner, the 19th-century English Romantic painter. His finest work is shown at Tate Britain, which is the usual venue for the prize show, where key works from the nominees are exhibited.
Set up in 1984, the Turner was originally intended to promote developments in British art, but swiftly became the most prestigious (and controversial) award in the British art calendar. In recent years it has become widely associated with conceptual art and media such as video. But all forms of work, however traditional, can be entered, and several painters have won.
Judged by a panel chosen by the Tate directors, artists are ranked on their entire body of work and not on the much-publicised prize exhibition. The award has a controversial past – in 2002, the former Culture secretary, Kim Howells, said: "If this is the best British artists can produce then British art is lost. It is cold, conceptual bullshit."
The Turner is dependent on sponsorship and was initially funded by Drexel Burnham Lambert, the investment bank whose collapse in 1990 led to that year's prize being cancelled. Channel 4 got involved the following year, its coverage raising the Turner's profile. In 2004, Gordon's gin took over – setting the prize money at £40,000: £25,000 for the winner and £5,000 for each of the nominees.
The Turner Prize winners
Gilbert & George