Instead of a Post-it

We welcome back Owen Polley of the award-winning Three Thousand Versts: he’s wondering what the Turner Prize is really for…

The British public loves to hate the Turner Prize.

For evidence, you can visit the current exhibition, at the Tate Britain in London, and read the comment wall at the end.  “They should all be committed to a lunatic asylum”, “Complete rubbish from start to finish” and, even more succinctly, “Pile of wank”, are among the reviews scrawled on post-it notes and fastened to the display.

One response reads, “This wall is the best thing in the exhibition”.

The truth is, on this occasion, the punters are right.  Like some of Samuel Beckett’s plays, or Will Gompertz, the Turner Prize seems to tempt out the inner Philistine even in those of us who value the arts highly.

I visited the Tate Britain ready and eager to have my preconceptions swept aside by some of the UK’s brightest and most talented artists.  Unfortunately, afterwards, the best I could say of the six contenders for Britain’s premier modern art prize is that one of them can draw very well.

And that assessment isn’t supposed to be particularly withering.  Paul Noble sketches densely detailed pictures of an imaginary city called Nobson Newtown.  They’re quite impressive, as these things go.

Indeed, had Noble been doodling on the back of his homework jotter, an encouraging teacher may have steered him toward a career in architecture, or urged him to take an A Level in ‘tech drawing’.  There’s an active imagination at work in his pictures, which are rather like something a talented sci-fi geek might produce – if it weren’t for all the poo.

The artist has a bit of a scatological preoccupation and … erm …. litters his fictional world with poo boats and poo people.  Oh, and if you look closely, because this is the Turner Prize, some of the inhabitants of Nobson Newtown are masturbating.  Edgy.

And that covers the most interesting artist in this year’s shortlist.  The rest are pretty dull.

There’s a Glaswegian chap who takes grainy photos on an old camera, which appear in pairs, because his exhibit is called Divided Self.  He’s also shot a long film about the ‘anti-psychiatrist’ R.D. Laing, which is probably worth a watch if it ever appears on BBC 4.

Another movie, by Elizabeth Price, uses some mildly interesting visuals to tell the tale of a fire that burned down a Woolworths in Manchester.  She’s playing around with storytelling techniques, so if you were writing a piece about her work in a scholarly journal you’d be expected to trot out words like ‘narrative’ and ‘postmodernism’.

I couldn’t help feeling that there have been pop videos which do the same thing more impressively.  And the MTV feel was exacerbated when The Woolworths Choir of 1979 bursts into a song by the Shangri Las.

The last piece was by the type of artist who makes people genuinely angry about modern art.

Spartacus Chetwynd, whom Wikipedia confirms was not christened ‘Spartacus’, has dressed a few chaps in sheets and smeared them with camouflage (top).  They lie about pretending to sleep, or get up and gyrate a bit.  The blurb says that the performance is ‘carnivalesque’, although I thought it was more like an ‘Occupy’ protest for people who find the outdoors too cold.

Still, I suppose that’s the point.  A cynic, who’d completed their ‘post-it’ review of the exhibition, suggested Chetwynd’s selection was a publicity stunt, dropped in by the judges to generate column inches for the short-list.

They’re probably not far off the mark.

Next year the Turner Prize becomes a travelling freak show, as the ceremony moves to Northern Ireland and forms the centre-piece of Londonderry’s stint as the first UK City of Culture.

And that’s just how the British public likes it.  The Turner Prize is a chance to point and laugh at some pretentious people desperately trying to prove they have talent.  Or it’s an opportunity to rage and fume at how the modern world is going to hell, because left-field artists like to outdo each other in outrageousness.

Either way, the art may not wow people, but they keep reading about the shortlist and they flock to the exhibition, even if it’s only to pour out their derision on a post-it note.

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12 thoughts on “Instead of a Post-it

    November 6, 2012 at 10:16

    The very idea of awarding prizes for art or architecture kind of makes a mockery of art, ‘first prize goes to Betty Smith’ Who says it’s the best, a jury made up from the current flavour of the month, that’s who. The art establishment’s answer to I’m a celebrity get me out of here. Time and the dealers cunning will determine the artists worth, and more importantly our individual appreciation.

    Bring back Jo Beuys, that’s wot I say, you can’t beat a bit of Fluxused lard.

  2. Worm
    November 6, 2012 at 11:11

    Interesting isn’t it, this ‘daily mail effect’ now in ascendance as the premier form of marketing. Ryanair have been doing it for a while now too. The cleverest bit is that even if people know it’s being done to them, they still can’t help reacting to it in the prescribed way, such is the human ability to be riled up about obviously wrong things.

    November 6, 2012 at 13:03

    Isn’t it high time the Turner prize was awarded to the European Union?

      November 9, 2012 at 23:30


  4. Brit
    November 6, 2012 at 14:02

    I visited the Tate Britain ready and eager to have my preconceptions swept aside by some of the UK’s brightest and most talented artists.

    I get a lot of PR missives about exhibitions and they always, always, without fail, invite me to have my preconceptions swept aside or at the very least challenged.

    Frankly my preconceptions have had enough of being messed around with – I want them to lie fallow for a bit and grow back again.

    November 6, 2012 at 15:23

    Indeed Brit, and the same might be said about those who promise to “expand your horizons”. Expanded horizons are a recipe for misery.

    I wonder whether an exhibition of medieval painting might get away with promising to narrow one’s horizons. “No depth, no facial expressions, no emotion—just like your comfortable little circumscribed life.”

    • Gaw
      November 6, 2012 at 15:36

      “Expanded horizons are a recipe for misery.”

      So speaks a Canadian.

        November 6, 2012 at 17:54

        Sad to see yer unmistakeable stench of casual racism seep into the Dabbler, eh!

    November 6, 2012 at 17:20

    Current art as offered by the new kids on the block, or at least the stuff that hangs on walls or stands on the floor and inquires that, if we can spare the time, it has something to offer would appear to have lost it’s rudder, if it had a rudder in the first place. There seems to be a lack of either genuine talent or the nursery environment that would allow it the space to breath. It was said that in Germany, when Martin Luther nailed his prospectus to the door of the Wittenberg church, German art died, the golden age of Cranach, Holbein and Dürer was over. At least the reason for that was obvious, Horst on the Erfurt haywain had enough of Roman hypocrisy and bling and art was it’s message stick.
    What has caused today’s dearth of art, it cannot be lack of talent, the population of Florence today is far greater than during the early renaissance, how can it be the breeding ground with so many learning opportunities and the time to develop new ideas available. Can it be lack of subject matter. From that bloke on the cross and his mum via misc Greeks to the deconstruction-reconstruction brigade there has been a surfeit. That’s it, they have ran out of subjects to represent / misrepresent or modern society no longer has any. Let’s, while we kill time as they gather their wits, just carry on admiring the existing stuff.

      November 7, 2012 at 13:23

      it cannot be lack of talent

      Perhaps not, but it could be lack of skill. This isn’t really my field, but
      I believe many of the great classical works of art and architecture would be irreplaceable if destroyed because so much of the craftsmanship that went into them has been lost. Tom Wolfe wrote a great article about this and about what happened when a truly skilled sculptor went up against a modern favourite of the New York art scene over the Vietnam Memorial in Washington..

    November 7, 2012 at 11:22

    It’s hugely depressing to think that artists have run out of subjects to represent. My hope is that there is talent out there, but that it’s just being ignored, thanks to the vagaries of fashion.

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