Howard Jacobson: Art has grown ashamed of making art just as the Tories are ashamed of being Tory

Beauty is the last thing any Turner Prize winner wishes to be accused of
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The Independent Online

Question: what, other than their initials, and the fact that each came up with a winner last week, and that both winners are the baby side of 40, do the Turner Prize and the Tory party have in common? Don't know. That's not an admission of ignorance, it's the answer - don't know. Neither the Turner Prize nor the Tory party any longer knows what it's for.

We are long past inveighing against the Turner Prize. Inveigh against the Turner Prize and you give it the very thing it doesn't otherwise have - a raison d'être. That's why they can't wait for Mr and Mrs Hadituptohere of Market Harborough to kick up their annual stink. At a stroke the Turner Prize is able to see itself as trying the aesthetic timidity of the nation. Otherwise all that happens is a few prices go up, a few Tate trustees (who occasionally turn out be the artists) get richer, and Selfridges have something to put in their windows. The ease with which art intended to baffle the comprehension of an uneducated commercial society gets taken up by an uneducated commercial society will not have gone unnoticed by those who administer and champion the prize. So they seize upon any hostility as proof that their edge is as keen as ever. In fact, of course, the Turner Prize, like the Tory party, is the bluntest blade in town.

He looks a nice enough guy, the winner. Simon Starling who won the Turner Prize, I mean, not David Cameron who won the Tory party, though David Cameron looks a nice enough guy as well. But nice or not, Starling is in danger of being remembered chiefly for his description of his work as "the physical manifestation of a thought process". There is a reason why Turner Prize winners are encouraged in their hour of victory to get pissed, snort coke, fall silent, beat up a photographer, or, if he or she must talk, talk the secret language of the art college - that way nothing they say runs the risk of passing into the realm of intelligibility. But we know what "the physical manifestation of a thought process" means: it means that the tie you wear answers in some way to the tie you intended to wear, or, if you prefer we stay with manufacture, that the shelves we build express the shelves we had been imagining.

I can't pretend I have chosen this example at random. Indeed, my mentioning of shelves is itself a physical manifestation of a thought process in that I was thinking of mentioning them. As a buyer and hoarder of books I have knocked up many sets of shelves in my life, all of them horrible to look upon because of the over-masculinity of my choice of materials - railway sleepers, when I can get them, held together with 18-inch steel bolts - and the sense of permanence, capable of withstanding any tempest, hurricane or earthquake, with which they are imbued.

Sooner than take down my shelves, you either sell the house or bulldoze it. And sooner than live with the person who built them, you either petition the courts for an eviction order, or run a mile yourself. Every woman with whom I have been romantically attached has left me because of my shelves, seeing in them the physical manifestation of a thought process so brutalist they can be romantically attached to me no longer.

I make no charge of brutalism against Simon Starling. The boatshed he turned into a boat and back again into a boatshed, by way of commenting on the mutability of objects in a wasteful world, might look rough and ready, but compared to my shelves, believe me, it is a thing of surpassing beauty. He will not, of course, thank me for saying that. Beauty is the last thing any Turner Prize winner wishes to be accused of. Beauty, with all its bourgeois associations, implies plenitude; whereas conceptualism, which the Turner Prize almost exclusively acknowledges, is entirely minimalist in its ambitions - that's if entire minimalism isn't a contradiction in terms. Here is not the place to discuss the significance of minimalism in Western art, but in brief it is the child of embarrassment.

Some time at the beginning of the 20th century art grew embarrassed by its own too-muchness in a nihilistic world, and, like any person who feels his frame or limbs are bigger than they ought to be, began to shrink and hide itself in public. It wasn't the thinking about art, or the being an artist, that embarrassed; it was the execution of art. Simon Starling's reference to his thought processes - never mind what I've made, attend only to what was in my head when I was making it - is just the latest expression of this shame before the fact of execution.

Ditto the Tory party. Never mind for the moment the calibre of the man we have chosen to be our leader, only notice what was in our heads when we chose him. We thought new, we thought youthful, so we are new and we are youthful. Please be so kind as to do with the Tory party what you do with the Turner Prize and accept the intention for the deed.

More embarrassment, you see. Just as art has grown ashamed of making art, so has the Tory party grown ashamed of being Tory. Where elderly, comfortably-off people with cut-glass accents and retrograde attitudes to everything that matters are supposed to go now, who will stand up for them and represent their views if David Cameron doesn't - which is not to say that David Cameron won't - are questions no one cares to answer. But the assumption - like the assumption the Turner Prize makes as to those who wish to hang a painting on their wall - is that such people no longer count.

Time for a new, unabashed Delacroix in art, I say. And a Tory leader confidently out of touch with what which it is not worth being in touch with. So they'll both lose - who cares? It's not the winning, it's the unembarrassed taking part.

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