Why prize rows are good for art -and business

The Booker and Turner prizes may not always be awarded to the right people - but they do sell books and goad the public into discussing art
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It would be a good idea, AN Wilson wrote in Friday's Evening Standard, if there were no more Booker prizes. The great majority of the 150 novels entered this year were of no quality, he said; the book he favoured as a judge (Beryl Bainbridge's Every Man For Himself) did not win. There is a "silly dinner" and it is all a "commercial game". Publishers play this game because they think it will "help them sell books".

Oh my goodness, how dreadful, publishers want to sell more books - including, from time to time, Mr Wilson's own!

He is quite right in one sense. The Booker Prize does lift sales of the shortlisted entries and give a significant boost to the winner. Bookmakers take bets, the "silly dinner" is televised, newspapers run many column inches on the event and there is always an AN Wilson on hand to shudder in horror.

Controversy is an essential part of the formula. As a result the British public turns its attention for a short period to the notion of the novel in English. It is hard, surely, to deny that this is a good thing. And, because this is so, next January, when a further five distinguished literary experts are asked to form the judging panel for the 1997 award, they will agree, and the bandwagon will roll forward for another year.

We should recognise that the two big cultural prizes, the Booker for the English novel, which has just been announced, and the Turner Prize for a British artist, due to be awarded towards the end of this month, are both of them an extraordinary mix of art and business.

They are themselves subtle creations which have taken years to perfect. The exact terms of the competition, the nature of the shortlist, the timing of the announcements, the qualifications of the judges, the wishes of the sponsors - these are the elements which are blended together, I believe more or less successfully, for the advancement of public interest in the arts.

The Booker was set up in 1968, and it wasn't until 1980 that it reached a viable formula.

Likewise, the Turner required nine years of refinement until, in 1993, with the award to Rachel Whiteread, it began to make a permanent place for itself in the public mind. That the Turner represents for many people the absurdity of modern art does not matter. That is what is expected. Its shortlist is always avant-garde in a way in which the Booker novels are not. The Daily Express headline on the Turner award a few years ago: "Has taking us for a ride become an art form?" perfectly captured its notoriety.

My advice to people who share this view is to go this month to the Tate, if possible, and view the work of this year's shortlisted artists. I would be very surprised if they did not thoroughly enjoy the exhibition, albeit that one of the entries is a video installation, another is a series of wonderful photographs by an artist who absurdly refuses to call himself a photographer, and a third includes maps and diagrams and three white yachting sails rigged on metal stands, each bearing the name and date of a literary figure.

Nevertheless, both the Booker and the Turner do have flaws which need attention.

It is remarkable that in 27 years nobody has won the Booker prize more than once. A whole generation of novelists has gone by without successive juries of literary experts coming to the conclusion that one or two should be elevated above the rest.

Salman Rushdie was the winner in 1981 with Midnight's Children and has been on the shortlist three times subsequently, with The Satanic Verses, Shame and The Moor's Last Sigh. Kingsley Amis had one win and two shortlistings. It seems that the judges are seized by a very British sense of fair play. They don't say out loud: "Can't give it to Salman, he's won it already"; instead they find other reasons for passing it round.

The Turner Prize has more serious problems. It is awarded to a British artist under 50 for outstanding work in the previous 12 months. What purpose does the age limit serve? Being set in middle age, it does not specifically encourage young artists. It seems to be saying, but cannot mean to do so, that artists aged over 50 are unlikely to be producing outstanding work. There is a further difficulty which arises from the position of the Tate itself, the founder and organiser of the prize. Unlike the Book Trust, which is a neutral administrator of the Booker, the Tate is by miles the most important contemporary art institution in this country. It has a view.

This means that the identity and standing of the jury, and its independence, are of great importance. Yet when you look at this year's members, other than Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate Gallery, who is also chairman of the jury, they are unknown. They impart no reassurance. I doubt whether one in a thousand of those who visit the exhibition of the work on the shortlist will have heard the names of any of the judges, except that of Mr Serota.

Who would I like to see on the jury in place of this year's obscure experts? Here are three for starters: Charles Saatchi, Brian Sewell, Lucien Freud.