Watching What Has the Turner Prize Ever Done for Us?

David Somers bio photo By David Somers Comment

Billed as (source):

In this programme, critic and broadcaster Waldemar Januszczak looks back over three decades of critical acclaim, public outcry and artistic controversy, hearing from the winners, nominees and judges to find out what the history of the prize can tell us about our relationship to the relevance and purpose of contemporary art.

Its been going for 30 years. This is the story of the Turner Prize, awarded based on recognition by museums and curators rather than the market. Controversial.

Januszczak divided the programme into four chapters.

Part 1 — The Turner Prize is Born (before being born again)

It all started in 1984 by Alan Bowness — who was Director of the Tate — when art was not seen as a priority, and the nation was still talking about those Damn Tate Bricks. He was keen on modern art, wanted to share that enthusiasm, so decided to start a prize.

With the first winner being Malcolm Morley an English Artist, but who was living in the US, there was a bit of a controversy. And this was embraced.

An interesting comment from Bowness is that he doesn’t like they way that contemporary art has developed.

A lot of conceptual art doesn’t really excite me. All the young people in the art schools want to do conceptual art or performances or film or video — anything but painting a picture or making a sculpture

This is strange. On one hand he is enthused by modern art. On the other hand, he’s only excited by painting and sculpture. Does that mean conceptual, performance, film, or video is not real art? This is a perspective that keeps rearing its head in modern art. Guess I’m a bit biased as my own artworks are somewhat conceptual in nature, even if they’re (currently) massive color fields and strictly normal lines and whatnot.

Who pays for the Turner prize. Certainly not the government. So, private sources to the “rescue”. Initially a group of wealthy art lovers. By the end of the 80s, Drexel Turnham Lambert, an American Investment Bank took over, until 1990 when junk bonds collapsed, sponsorship collapsed, the prize halted.

Part 2 — Waldemar Writes a Letter

In 1990, Januszczak was head of arts at Channel 4. He wrote a letter to the new Tate Director, Nicholas Serota, to relaunch the Turner Prize with Channel 4’s help. There were changes: Prize money increased to GBP 20,000; the shortlist was limited to four artists; the expo was expanded into an event with each artist getting their own room; and the age limit of 50 was introduced. This age limit was intended to spotlight “hot young things”. Bit of a bugger if you’ve come late to art, like myself and many others.

Over the next ten years, the Turner Prize seemed to go from strength to strength. Starting with Anish Kapoor, the heydays of the “YBA”, Rachel Whiteread (house), etc. And then came Damien Hurst. Cue Scandal. Cue Outrage.

Part 3 — Waldemar is Upstaged by a Rascal

You can probably guess who the rascal is. Before the programme started there was the usual warning from continuity about “this programme contains swearing”. So, who else could it be but Tracey Emin, and, of course what else could it be but that “drunken scene” from 1997.

Emin wasn’t even shortlisted that year. Don’t worry, she gets shortlisted in 1999 for My Bed. Cue more outrage about the prize in the tabloids. Visitor numbers to the expo go through the roof. A case of there’s no such thing as bad publicity?

More controversy in 2001. Won by Martin Creed with Work No. 227: The lights Going on and Off. The tabloids hated it. From what I can remember at the time there was a push against this work… not as bad as Bricks, but still very much along the line of “So this is art?”.

The Stuckists have, from 2000, protested outside the Tate against the prize. They’re into figurative painting and against conceptual art. And they do get a lot of coverage by protesting. As Januszczak points out people in Britain are more aware of modern art then they used to be, so going back to “proper painting and sculpture is old hat”.

Part 4 — The Prize Goes North, West, and All-Over-The-Place

Januszczak looks back to 2003 when there was a face-off between Grayson Perry and The (Jake and Donos) Chapman Brothers. Perry won, and spouted those infamous words (as his alter-ego Claire):

Its about time a transvestite potter won the Turner

Interesting observation from Jake Chapman that he was more interested in just showing his work than winning the prize.

After 2008, the prize has biannually departed London to be hosted elsewhere.

More controversy in 2013 with the prize going to Assemble. A bunch of architects who don’t see themselves as artists.


A really informative programme, and the more I see Januszczak the more his enthusiasm comes through. I’ve also noticed Cornelia Parker keeps popping up in the current wave of art documentaries the Beeb are showing; guess she’s flavor of the month. A bit surprised that Perry wasn’t a talking head in this one, but its nice to have other people get their face and views on the box.

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