Alice Jones: It's not easy to talk about modern art – so we should let it speak for itself


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The Independent Online

It was only three little words, but they painted a picture. Closing her bulletin on Reporting Scotland this week, the presenter Jackie Bird turned to the Turner Prize and the news that contemporary art's biggest prize had been won – for the third year in a row – by a Scottish artist.

"Martin Boyce is known for reimagining items normally found in parks and public spaces and using them in atmospheric, modernist-inspired landscapes..." she said, her face crumpling into a bemused grin. "As you do," she added.

She might just as well have rolled her eyes, and muttered "blah blah arty rubbish blah" under her breath, too. It's difficult to imagine many other news stories warranting such a dismissive sign-off. Even the cutesiest drop-the-dead-donkey item comes with a warm smile rather than a knowing sneer.

Contemporary art, and particularly conceptual art, especially the flashing lights, unmade beds and pornographic pots of the Turner Prize, is another kettle of fish. The works concerned are rarely reported neutrally. If it's not a baffled shrug, it's a garbled rehash of a statement from the jury, spattered with "isms" and other confusing abstractions.

There is an awful lot of impenetrable drivel spilled by the art cognoscenti, which doesn't help. Boyce's installation of an indoor park, with leaning litter bins and square trees, was praised by the judges for "opening up a new sense of poetry" and for its "pioneering contribution to the current interest which contemporary artists have in historic modernism, while continuing to develop and find new directions within the same vocabulary". No wonder Bird looked bemused.

Her attitude, though, is typical of television's Madonna/whore approach to the visual arts. They are either handled with kid gloves in dumbed-down documentaries fronted by whispering, cringing presenters or held up for reverse snobbery and ridicule. There is a middle ground. The best artists, critics and presenters provide clear descriptions which help the viewer to look again, with better informed eyes, and to judge for themselves whether what they're seeing is ravishing or risible. How refreshing if, next year, the winning works were allowed to speak for themselves – no jargon, and no waggish "as you dos".