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Epigram - Bristol University's Independent Student Newspaper

The Turner Prize: still too cool for school?

20 Feb 2012 Written by 

    Every year the Turner Prize rolls around, and with slight embarrassment I admit that I’m interested to see who has been named the chosen one, who gets to clamber up onto their high horse and dictate what art is today. According to this year’s winner Martin Boyce, we should be seeing beauty in objects that you pass everyday, and if you happen to see beauty in the glistening bristles of a toilet brush, that’s fine by me. But what I take particular offence to is the growing pretentiousness that surrounds modern art, and particularly the Turner Prize. As a History of Art student, I’m more than familiar with the need to prove one’s ‘artiness’; everyday I feel the pressure to stock my wardrobe with overpriced and oversized ‘80s vintage jumpers whilst listening to bands who are so obscure they haven’t even been played at Thekla yet.

    However, whilst walking around an exhibition like the recently closed Turner Prize at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, I tend to feel like the kid in the playground who brought raisins for break, rather than Monster Munch. Have institutions such as the Turner Prize become detrimentally pretentious, or have I just missed the dubstep-playing boat on what’s socially and artistically ‘cool’ nowadays? The fact that I stick out like a sore thumb walking around many contemporary art exhibitions suggests that other high street wearing, reality TV-watching, art enthusiasts are avoiding such exhibitions, for fear of looking like they accidentally stumbled into the exhibition on their way to the latest release of Twilight part fourteen.

    My point is that art is supposed to be for everyone, and although the current prize-winner is trying to make art more approachable to the everyday person, snobbery is rife in the modern art world. In the case of the Turner Prize, the criteria for a winner seems to be who can cause the most controversy. With notable past winners such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, it’s undeniable that the prize has an eye for up- and-coming artists, but it is not the controversy of the art itself that I have a problem with, it’s the eco-friendly, skinny-latte loving groupies that come with them. It’s as if anyone who has the audacity to question the ‘edginess’ of Tracey Emin’s used-knicker laden slept-in bed should be carted off to Camden for a re-education in ‘cool’, negating the sacred subjectivity of modern art.

    In 2010, the Turner Prize hit the headlines, not necessarily for the controversy of its art, but for its pretentiousness and arrogance. Upon entering the exhibition at the Tate Britain, press photographers were asked to sign a form, declaring that their photographs could not be used to give the Turner Prize or the Tate Britain any bad publicity. Last I heard, press censorship was kind of a big no-no. The Tate needed to realise that they operate in a democracy and not in North Korea. Were the organisers afraid of the backlash for the controversy of their art? Or were they just arrogant enough to think that their presence on the upper end of the artistic hierarchy put them above the principal of freedom of speech? Personally, I think it’s the controversy of their art that got the Tate’s Emin used-knickers in a twist.

    For me, the value at the very heart of modern art is its subjective nature. In most cases, it’s supposed to be provocative and to get the viewer thinking. What’s the point of trying to force the public to like something, when what you really want is for them to take from it what they will and make up their own mind?

    In November, a German cleaner for a Martin Kippenberger exhibition in Dortmund did just that and inadvertently gave the ultimate opinion on modern art. Whilst cleaning the exhibition, the cleaner came across Kippenberger’s sculpture ‘When It Starts Dripping From The Ceiling’, which consisted of a tower of wooden slats composed into a scaffolding- like structure, standing over a rubber trough that contains a layer of paint, representing dried water. Mistaking the trough for a dirty bucket, the cleaner took to making it as clean as possible, thus removing the carefully applied layer of paint, irreversibly damaging the work, which was valued at £690,000. Although this costly case of mistaken identity was not intentional, it raises the question of where to draw the line between the ordinary and art. Is Tracey Emin’s slept- in bed an irreplaceable work of contemporary art? Or is it something I create every day? Free of charge, might I add.

    Today, it is possible to pass almost anything off as art, using one’s artistic licence to turn, for example, an ordinary shark into, well, an ordinary shark soaked in formaldehyde à la Damien Hirst and I have no problem with that. If Charles Saatchi wanted to buy my current collection of unwashed dishes, I wouldn’t be complaining either, in fact I’d be advertising my intentionally overflowing rubbish bin as a place to house Tracey Emin’s art degree. But many of today’s pretentious art groupies would persecute the ordinary art lover for not appreciating, or being able distinguish Hirst’s ‘Dots’ from a Dulux sampler. I for one long to see the day when art lovers of all fashions can discuss the latest Turner Prize winner over a slice of humble pie, but until then I must question whether modern art exhibitions such as the Turner Prize have become so edgy, it hurts.


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