Apollo Magazine (UK)
The Turner Prize is firmly established as the principal prize in the art calendar and is fully engrained in the public psyche. It has regularly introduced the general public to the current state of contemporary art, facilitated by an association perfected over the years between media and institution. The success of the prize has come in part from its capacity to shock: an unmade bed, a potter not a painter, architects not artists, a pickled calf or a bum-hole doorway.
Last year in Margate the shock came not from the art but the announcement itself. Artists Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo and Tai Shani chose to share the prize ‘to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity – in art as in society’. The statement drew a standing ovation and seemed genuinely moving; in a time of division here was some unity. The gesture offered a challenge to the prize, or at least its integrity as a competitive sport.
Cue the ensuing debate. For some, this act of selflessness would change the prize for good, even bring it to an end, now that artists had unionised in this way. This might be the case, but I suspect not. An artist I was chatting with not long after confirmed that if they were nominated, they would not be sharing the prize with anyone.
My own jury service for the Turner Prize was in 2015 and resulted in the Assemble collective winning for their regeneration project with residents of the Granby Four Streets neighbourhood in Liverpool. The idea of a multidisciplinary group working outside the art market, or even something ‘not art at all’ triumphing, was seen then as a big challenge to the system. That other art worlds exist was not easy to digest. ‘You’ve broken art!’ someone said on the night. I reassured them that it would be business as usual next year, and it was.
The Turner’s resilience suggests that such art prizes still have a role to play, as long as we live in an age of spectacle. However, they belong to a time that is passing, one rooted in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the ‘exhibitionary’ moment. The emerging shift from mechanistic thinking to ecological thinking – or our habit of thinking about art in isolation from the world rather than as something that is connected to wider cultural or social frameworks – will bring with it a change in emphasis from product to process. We are already seeing the emergence of a more values-driven generation which is in turn driving a more values-based economy. The unionisation of last year’s Turner Prize winners hints at this, in turning the gaze from the prize itself to wider societal issues.
In this context art prizes must evolve so as to support and make visible the process of making art and its effect on the world.
Concentrating attention on the singular image or object does not tell the full story of the role that art plays in our culture, reinforcing an idea of creativity complicit with the market rather than enriching a broader social capital. Now is the time to reassert art as a vital process that operates across education, social development, health and the broader economy.
There are some examples of this approach already in play. In recent years, the Artes Mundi prize has worked with the shortlisted artists on long-term commissions and projects in South Wales. The peripatetic Visible Award supports artists, chosen through a quasi-parliamentary public jury process, to expand and deliver on their socially engaged practices. The point here is to engage with artistic projects that, in a radical and proactive way, are able to rethink our cities or rural communities, question education models and propose alternative models of economic development.
Both these formats exemplify how art prizes can be more open-ended, experimental and creative and less embedded in a singular perception of art as merely complicit in market and spectacle. I would welcome this further dissolution of art into the everyday, and suggest it is a viable approach for thinking about the future of art prizes.