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The Turner Prize shortlist is an embarrassment

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

In 2019 I was asked to be on the jury for the Turner Prize. I was pretty happy about this. As an art critic, to be asked to judge one of the biggest art prizes feels like something of a professional endorsement. I even rang my mum to tell her. ‘But don’t tell anyone yet!’ I said over the phone. ‘It’s not been announced.’ A week or so later, home to see my parents, I walked into the village pub. One of my dad’s friends looked up from his pint and shouted: ‘I heard you’re judging the Turner Prize!’ Mum isn’t known for discretion. The rest of the evening was spent with various locals asking if I was going to give the award to ‘a pile of bricks’ or ‘an unmade bed’. Steve, who lives on my parents’ street, offered his empty packet of nuts by way of art.

The shortlist my fellow jurors and I put forward that year consisted of four video artists. The show at Tate Britain got good reviews. Charlotte Prodger, an artist who makes profoundly beautiful films about the landscape and identity, was the eventual £25,000 winner.

I recall all this, three years later, by way of a mea culpa however. Also nominated was Forensic Architecture, a collective who deny being artists at all. They do, however, use the tools of art — video, drawing, sculpture — to document human rights abuses. Their work, which has been exhibited around the world, is rooted in aesthetics even if it has a deeply political, activist intent. Yet their nomination, and that of Assemble in 2015, an architecture practice, may have paved the way for the embarrassment of this year’s shortlist.

Five-strong (no explanation as to why the list has been expanded from the usual four), it exclusively features collectives, all of whom are engaged in social work of one kind or another. The work of Array Collective (see image above) ‘encompasses performances, protests, exhibitions and events’ made ‘in response to socio-political issues affecting Northern Ireland’; Gentle/Radical create ‘real and virtual spaces for communities in Wales to engage with culture’. Some of those shortlisted do genuinely good community-based work: Project Art Works provides studios in Hastings for artists with learning disabilities. Cooking Sections, two academics from architecture who make work addressing climate change, have shown in museums internationally; they are the only name on the list that has. Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S.) puts on club nights. They might be fun. Tate, the prize organiser, helpfully adds that a ‘recent’ art work included a seven-minute film the group produced three years ago.

Shortly after accepting the £10,000 nomination fee, B.O.S.S. (‘formed by and for Queer, Trans and Intersex Black and People of Colour’) issued a public statement bemoaning that through their nomination they were being ‘instrumentalised’ by the Tate. That the group was being used by the museum to, presumably, bolster its progressive credentials. In truth the Tate has very little say in selecting the artists. It is the jury, a new one appointed each year, that holds the power. There is, of course, some irony in judge Zoé Whiteley, director of the Chisenhale Gallery in London, commending groups who provided community outreach projects during the pandemic while her own non-profit institution speedily made its public programmes department redundant during the first lockdown. Or that this shortlist cleverly swerves potential conflict-of-interest accusations against the actor Russell Tovey, a keen art collector who buys profusely from the kind of young artists who might previously have been up for the prize.

Yet the real crime is that, for all the right-on gloss, this is a highly reactionary shortlist. The jury seem embarrassed by art — the weird crazy stuff people get up to in the privacy of their own studios up and down the country (and continued to do so throughout the pandemic while the institutional gatekeepers shut up shop) — and unsure of its use beyond the literal. This shortlist sends the message that contemporary art objects, be they ugly or beautiful, odd or mundane, pointless or pointed — the stuff the patrons of The Swan love to hate, but nonetheless provide something of a national conversation — have no place in a time of global crisis. What an abdication of responsibility.

Instead art is reduced to social work (while actual social workers and the vital work they do are underfunded and ostracised) and we, public and artists alike, are left shortchanged by a group of professionals who seem keen only that we bask in their ‘good’ politics.

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