Turner Prize For Contemporary Art (1984-2014)
The Turner Prize?
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Named after England's greatest painter JMW Turner (1775-1851), and worth £20,000 to the winning artist, the Turner Prize is an annual visual arts prize, usually awarded at the beginning of December, for achievement in contemporary art. Frequently controversial in its choice of shortlisted candidates, the award is now established as one of the most prestigious avant-garde art competitions in Europe, if not worldwide. Famous Turner Prizewinners include Gilbert & George (1986), Anish Kapoor (1991), Rachel Whiteread (1993), Anthony Gormley (1994), and Damien Hirst (1995). For details, see: Turner Prize Winners.
The award was established by the Patrons of New Art - a group formed in 1982 to fund the purchase of new works of art for the Tate Gallery, and to stimulate interest in contemporary British art. They named the award after the great landscape painter Turner in part because it was his desire to establish a prize for young artists. The fact that he was chosen also because his work was controversial in his own day, suggests that controversy is an integral feature of the competition: presumably, in order to provoke the necessary headlines and generate the required publicity. As it happened, the media success of the Turner Prize helped - and was in turn helped by - the late 1990s appearance of Britart and the Sensation exhibition of contemporary British art, curated by Charles Saatchi, at the London Royal Academy in 1997.
To begin with, the award was given to the person who - in the opinion of the jury - had made the greatest contribution to contemporary visual art in Britain over the previous 12 months, and was therefore open to administrators, curators and critics, as well as artists. Since 1991, eligibility has been limited to British artists under the age of 50, who have had "an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work" in the previous 12 months. However, since 1991, there has been no limit to the number of times a nominee artist can be shortlisted.
Nominations are invited during a three-week period in May; nomination forms usually appear in the Guardian Newspaper, as well as specialist art magazines. The independent Turner Prize jury, whose composition changes each year, then draws up a shortlist of four artists. This is announced in July. Then, during the last week or so of October, an exhibition of works by the four contenders is held at the Tate Britain (or Tate Liverpool). This continues until early January, although the name of the Turner Prize Winner is usually announced at the beginning of December.
Elements of the competitive process have been altered quite often over the years. At the outset, the shortlist numbered six artists. Since 1991, it has been limited to four. In 1988, it was decided not to make the shortlist public, and rather than staging a show of comparative works from all shortlisted candidates, the winner was given a solo show at the Tate the following year. More changes followed in 1989 when - in order to reduce the competitive element - a list of seven 'commended' artists was published. Then, in 1994, the shortlist was reinstated, along with the shortlist show, which now featured explanations of the exhibits, plus additional information about the artists.
The process still has its critics. For example, a Sunday Telegraph investigation into the 2006 Turner Prize revealed that members of the jury weren't able to visit shows of some artists and instead relied on catalogues and photographs!
More seriously perhaps, the art critic David Lee has stated that, since 1991, the shortlist has been dominated by artists associated with a small number of London dealers. One doubts that this can be true, but if it is, it would mean that the Turner Prize - and perhaps a large slice of the contemporary art market - is being manipulated for financial gain.
Turner prize money amounted to £10,000 each year until 1990, when it was suspended for 12 months. From 1991, the prize fund was raised to £20,000. Since 2004, the prize has been worth £40,000 - £25,000 to the winner, £5,000 to the three other contemporary artists on the shortlist. Turner Prize sponsors include: Oliver Prenn, a founder member of the Patrons of New Art, (1984-6); the US investment company, Drexel Burnham Lambert International Inc (1987-9); Channel 4 (19912003); Gordon's Gin (2004-present).
Is it Art?
Many of the exhibits associated with the Turner Prize - notably those involving conceptual art, unconventional sculpture, installation, and video art - are condemned by art critics and members of the general public who question their artistic content. Faced with works of art made from - seemingly plastic blow-up dolls, a bisected cow, elephant dung, an unmade bed with used-tampax, a hand-written 'wordscape' describing an erotic film - these sceptics ask, "is this really art?" Questions that highlight specific concerns include: What exactly distinguishes today's contemporary art from theatre, entertainment, or mere sales blurb? Is Photography Art? When does a documentary film become a work of art?
Emperor's New Clothes or What?
How much of cutting edge contemporary art can be likened to the fable of the "Emperor's New Clothes"? Consider this recent excerpt from The White Review on James Richards, a nominee for the 2014 Turner Prize (nominated for his contribution to The Encyclopaedic Palace at the 55th Venice Biennale):
What exactly does this mean? It means you need a PhD in Art to be able to understand it.
Reward Talented Artists or Fill Museums?
Other worries about the Turner Prize involve its general aim and direction, not least in light of Janet Street-Porter's 2006 comment that the Turner Prize entices thousands of young people into art galleries for the first time every year, thus fulfilling a valuable role. Is the main aim of the competition to identify and reward high quality visual artists, or to encourage people to visit museums? Selling extra tickets to art galleries and museums may be a commendable aim, but not (surely) at the expense of calling everything art. Otherwise how do we distinguish the good from the rubbish - by a show of hands?
The Influence of the Turner Prize on Students
Like it or not, the Turner Prize sends an important signal about what constitutes good modern art, to students and teachers in art colleges throughout Britain. In this context, rewarding highly subjective or conceptualist artworks may not be a very sensible strategy. And if you think that students and curators should be given free rein, consider this: in March 2009, an exhibition of cutting edge creativity was staged at the Pompidou Centre of Contemporary Art, in Paris. Entitled "The Specialisation of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilised Pictorial Sensibility", the show featured nine completely empty rooms.
Some of the more unusual Turner Prize exhibits include the following:
A 2-hour film of a person wandering
around an art gallery in a bear suit. (Mark Wallinger)
1984 Malcolm Morley
There are numerous awards given by contemporary art galleries, foundations, museums and government arts bodies for outstanding works of contemporary art, in a wide variety of categories. They include:
Artes Mundi Prize