Will this year's Turner Prize winner stand among the all-time greats?

Whichever the year, whoever the artists, the Turner Prize always brings us back to the same old, endlessly fascinating question: what makes great art?

Share

Whoever wins the Turner Prize 2012 - the shortlist exhibition opens today at Tate Britain - we can be guaranteed it will re-open the same discussion over what counts as art, and whether today’s breed match up to the greats. Yet while that debate is familiar, increasingly less so is any public discussion over what it means to be a great artist.

Does it matter who the greatest artist in history is? The late, great art critic Robert Hughes, a ruthless defender of the right to make qualitative judgements, certainly thought so.But what do we even mean when we say "greatest artist"? A personal favourite? The greatest amount of technical skill? The ability to touch people across cultures and eras? One way of measuring artistic greatness without descending into top-ten lists of taste is to measure impact.

While Jean-Michel Basquiat was being celebrated, raised to lofty heights as the toast of New York in the 1980s, Hughes demurred. On Basquiat's death in 1988, Hughes wrote that his rise to fame was symptomatic of a "mania for instant reputation" and compared his boosters to "right-to-lifers, adoring the foetus and rhapsodising about what a great man it might have become if only it had lived".

With the clarity of hindsight we now know Hughes was right. Basquiat still has his fans, and, in 1996 his contemporary Julian Schnabel immortalised him in an eponymous biopic, but he is mostly remembered as a footnote in art history. An interesting one perhaps, a cautionary tale certainly, but a footnote nonetheless, celebrated as much for his untimely death and outsider status as for his actual work.

Even better-remembered artists aren't always remembered entirely for their greatness.1995's Turner Prize winner Damien Hirst was always controversial but he certainly caught the spirit of the times: a newly confident, yet brutal and anti-aesthetic art. No doubt the 1997 Labour government was doing a fair amount of bandwagon-jumping when it prattled-on about "Cool Britannia", but there is something in the timing. Hirst and his contemporaries, including Tracey Emin, came of age just as John Major's Conservative government was coming apart at the seams. Its replacement in the Blair administration was confident yet had a hole where its heart should have been — not to mention its mind. It would be a mistake to view art through a political prism, but all culture, even the rarefied world of the visual arts, tells us something about the society that produced it. So, in once again straitened times, Hirst seems not so much revolutionary but vulgar.

Some artists escape this fate. 1999's winner Steve McQueen has gone on to a successful career as a film director. The work of 1993's winner Rachel Whiteread still holds our interest and 2010's winner Susan Philipsz is an unlikely candidate for being a slave to the modish. (Full disclosure: Philipsz taught at the art school I attended, but she never taught me).

The lesson is simply that fashion and commerce are no guide to legacy. An unrepentant modernist, my personal favourite artists include Aleksandr Rodchenko, Russian founder of constructivism, and American abstract expressionists Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, but none of these, I fear, has a claim to the be the greatest artist.

Of twentieth century artists, none had the influence, creative longevity or artistic — and perhaps ethical — flexibility of Pablo Picasso. But then Picasso had his influences, including Cézanne. He in turn had the impressionists, they had Manet, he had the romantics… and on and on it goes.

98 years of intentionally shocking, but craft-, skill- and content-free art, where qualitative judgement is meaningless, and the laughs are wearing a bit thin.

Other names spring to mind too: Velázquez, Caravaggio, Goya, Rembrandt, Holbein, perhaps even Bacon. The list is a long one. Warhol, whose work I detest, was nothing if not influential.

Of course, it could be argued that Marcel Duchamp had the greatest influence on art. After all, almost the entire history of post-modernist art descends directly from his two jokes: The Bottle Rack (1914) and Fountain (1917).

These "readymades" upended the art world by presenting mass produced objects and claiming them as art simply because the artist said they were. And, lo, conceptual art was born. Some would argue, myself included, that the influence was an almost entirely negative one.

Actually, the joke is funny. Or rather, it was. 98 years of intentionally shocking but craft-, skill- and content-free art, where qualitative judgement is meaningless, later and the laughs are wearing a bit thin.

Sticking one's neck out and declaring any artist to be the greatest ever will only be met with complaints. The truth is there have been so many great artists that without naming a strict criteria for greatness it would be impossible to name just one. But making judgements is what it's all about.

Jason Walsh is Ireland correspondent of the CS Monitor and is reading for a PhD in philosophy. He is speaking at Who is the greatest artist? Balloon debate at the Battle of Ideas on Saturday 20 October

Independent Voices is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest articles from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Packaging Operatives

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for two indivi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

£20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Recruitment Genius: Estimator

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a major supplier of buil...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£28000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ukip MEP Janice Atkinson (left) with party leader Nigel Farage  

Hey, Nigel Farage and Kerry Smith – my family are East Enders too and never use that word

Victoria Richards
A screenshot from the trailer for Hatred  

I love violent video games, but you'll never catch me playing Hatred

Alex White
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas