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HomeNewsDr Campbell Campbell-Jack: Turner prize mirrors prejudices of the liberal elite

Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack: Turner prize mirrors prejudices of the liberal elite


The Turner Prize rolls around again. Every other year, in an attempt to bring civilisation to the hinterland, an exhibition of the work of the short-listed artists ventures outside London. This year’s exhibition will be in UK’s city of culture, Hull.

The prize is awarded to a British-based artist for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the year preceding 24th April 2017. The winner receives £25,000 and the other short-listed artists get £5,000 each.

The Turner Prize has nothing to do with J.M.W. Turner ( 1775-1851), one of Britain’s most famous and gifted painters. The prize was set up in 1984 to celebrate new developments in contemporary British art. Turner’s name was apparently tacked on because he’d wanted to establish a prize for young artists. This year the young artist aspect of the prize has been abandoned, the age limit of 50 has been lifted.

The 2017 four artist short-list is diverse; including three women, two painters and two over fifties. All on the short-list have origins or parentage from outside the UK. Whenever a mainstream event such as the Turner Prize bends over backwards to look ‘inclusive’, it opens itself up to accusations of manipulation and condescension.

The jury praised Birmingham-born African-Caribbean painter Hurvin Anderson as an outstanding painter whose art speaks to our current political moment with questions concerning identity and belonging. His work, such as Is It Okay To Be Black? the boldly painted interior of a Afro-Caribbean barbershop pays homage to black icons such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Andrea Büttner is a German artist who flits between London and Stuttgart. Her work was praised for its unique approach to collaboration and her exploration of religion, morality and ethics which she articulates through a wide range of media including printmaking, sculpture, video and painting. Her exhibitions investigate shame, vulnerability and poverty. Her work speaks for the forgotten and undervalued.

Tanzanian-born Lunaina Himid, a key figure in the Black Arts Movement, was praised by the jury for addressing important questions of personal and political identity, including references to the slave trade. Her work has consistently brought to the fore the contribution of the African diaspora to Western culture. Himid was appointed MBE in 2010 for her services to ‘Black Woman’s Art’.

Liverpool-based Rosalind Nashashibi, Croydon born with a Palestinian father and Irish mother, is a film artist and painter. She impressed the jury with the depth and maturity of her work. This often examines sites of human occupation and the codified relationships that occur within the those spaces, whether a family home or garden, a ship or the Gaza Strip.

Is it possible to see a theme emerging?

Whoever wins the Turner Prize this year it will be certainly be someone whose origins illustrate the diversity of modern Britain and whose work reflects a particular political standpoint. It does not answer the basic question of whether the work is the very best of contemporary British art. The suspicion is inevitably raised that it doesn’t really matter. The shallow symbolism of the selection undermines the purpose of the prize.

Adrian Searle, one-time judge at the Turner, reinforces the suspicion when writing in The Guardian he praises the short-list on political grounds: ’Long may this openness continue post-Brexit, when, I predict, art education will go into an even steeper decline, and the current internationalism of the British art world, and cultural life in general, will slide into a marginal provincialism’. For the art world even the Turner Prize is seen as a statement against Brexit.

The Turner Prize jury seem to have attempted to straddle the two extreme answers to the perennial question: What is Art? (They tend to think of art with a capital A). Art is either ‘everything is art’, or art is what the cultural establishment says is art. In this case they have both extremes. Art is politics and it is the politics espoused by the tiny art establishment elite.

It would be helpful if the contemporary art world could question some of their basic assumptions. In the midst of this rarefied atmosphere, the presuppositions are almost invariably progressive. Even scorned art outsiders such as Banksy have a deeply left wing view of the world.

The artist is mythologised as a figure who freely expresses his or her emotions and world-view; who bravely and joyfully transgresses the conventions of society. Yet the artist seeks validation from critics and the art establishment. Perhaps ‘everything is art’ but there is an institutionalised system that tells us what art is good and what bad, who is an artist and who can be ignored.

Within the art establishment, elitism is paramount. For them obfuscation is much preferred to illumination, it keeps the outside group outside and allows the inside group to reign supreme.

Far from being a world of free spirits expressing themselves despite the strictures of the establishment, the contemporary art world is an extremely competitive arena. It is obsessed with competition and hierarchy. Prizes such as the Turner are valued for the doors they open to ’winners’ and the career opportunities they bring.

Despite its mystique, art has always been establishment-oriented and political. Like accountants and bricklayers, artists do what will bring bread to the table, Artists paint, sculpt, video and install what the establishment wants, whether that establishment be the medieval Church, the wealthy of Florence, or today’s political elite. The Turner Prize merely illustrates the world-view of today’s Establishment elite.

(Image: LWYang)

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Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Campbell is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Stirlingshire. He blogs at A Grain of Sand.

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