Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Turner Prize Game of Art

It's Turner prize time again.  Yes indeed.  And aren't we fortunate to be living in an age where even the most spurious of individuals can have their moment in the limelight.  And thank god for that.  If they didn't come out into daylight every now and again we might be under the misapprehension that modern art had somehow disappeared, or become irrelevant or simply nonsense to those that search unabashed for the truth in art and culture.  So to take a quick tour of the contestants this year let us look first at... no.  Lets not.  I was going to write an educated 'in the know' essay on the nature of contemporary art, its place in society, the effort with which the Turner Prize strives to explore and examine the diversity of understanding and (that hateful word) 'practice' that is demonstrated by the four, whose catchphrase really should be "all for none and one for what?"  But there are myriad commentators on the subject of the Turner prize, those for, those against, and of course the in-concise verbiage you encounter when you try to fathom what on earth some of this stuff is for, let alone what it is about.  No.  Lets not bother with any of that.  Instead, let us play a game, the 'Turner Prize Game of Art' (also known as T-Art).

Lighbulb on/off
This game requires 3 or more players, 5 is a good number, preferably disaffected artists, and at least 2 bottles of wine, or a bottle of whisky (Lagavulin by choice), or brandy.  Vodka and gin are no good, and neither are cocktails or liqueurs (don't even think about advocat), since the contestants usually end up hurling abuse at each other or actually creating the 'art'.  In that case, you may as well enter the real thing, which is a lot less fun.

For a game with 5 players it takes place over 5 rounds.  Before the game starts, a consensus must be reached as to who is likely to be the winner, who will come second, third, fourth and fifth.  These 'seeds' must be noted as they are vital for the final scoring and may be used in arbitration to declare the winner should a fight break out.  Each player takes their turn to be the judge, while the other four have to come up with new works of art in each round for the competition.  In turn, they describe their work of art, its meaning, its physical manifestation, and why their art is important.  After the four have finished, the 'judge' must score the work, out of ten, for each of 3 categories: quality of art, entertainment, and aesthetics.  Some knowledge of art is crucial here, as if the judge is certain that the work of art they are scoring has already been made, with or without the contestants knowledge, their overall score for that particular work is halved.  The other players at this point can interject with their own knowledge, but if the judge completely disagrees, they automatically incur a 10 point penalty, and if the judge does agree, they gain 10 points.  Again, this is important for the final scoring.  After each round bets may be placed as to whom the eventual winner might be.

After all the rounds have been played, the scores are tallied up and compared with the initial rankings decided before the game started.  The winner will be the one with the most unlikely score.  Therefore, the 'artist' who was deemed to be the one with the most chance of winning, will only be the winner if they have in fact scored the least points.  And similarly, the one who was thought to have had the worst chance of winning, but actually scored quite highly, may end up the winner.

Since the final decision has to be made by all contestants, the idea of the game is to trick the others into believing they are something they are not, and then pleasantly surprising them with their inability to come up with any good ideas, or conversely, with their impressive creativity given their lacklustre appearance in their initial odds.

Cast yourself
You might imagine that it would therefore be easy enough to win, especially if you are the one in the group who is thought of as the best artist.  But the inability of a real artist to subdue their creativity regardless of success or money or anyone else caring in any way whatsoever about the masterpieces they have created, makes it almost impossible for them to step back and come up with nonsenses that could win them the prize.  There are many different tactics that can be employed to win this game, but beware that simply coming up with ideas that you imagine are rediculous, or completely bizaar, is likely to see you lose, since the more ludicrous the idea, the more likely it is that it has already been done.  And you might also be surprised by the creativity expressed by the 'non artists' of the group who then go on to make a decent career out of their imagined works, eventually winning the Turner Prize for real.  I could happen.

It is a delicate balancing act, and one which the Turner Prize judges take very seriously.  Each year, their task is to surprise.  They don't always get this right however.  In the early days, the prize was regularly awarded to those artists that had not, in the judges view, been sufficiently recognised so far in their career.  So you got the obvious winners, Howard Hodgkin, Tony Cragg, Richard Long, Anish Kapoor etc. etc.  Then the 'enfant terribles' came in.  But of course, they couldn't be awarded the prize straight away, no no no!  That would be far too obvious.  They were made to sweat.  Then, a few years later they would win: Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, that bloke in the bear costume...  The judges sit, they deliberate, but none of them ever ask, since it is not in their remit to do so, "is it art?"  That is a question that is beyond the pail, it is anathema to their way of thinking.  Simply considering the question shows you don't understand what contemporary art is.  After all, the contestants have been through the correct art hoops, they talk the talk, they walk the walk, they are called artist, ipso facto, what they produce is art, no question.  And who cares what art is anyway?  It's not even a question worth asking.  It is irrelevent.

Shed, something, shed
You see, anyone who has come to the point in their life when anything goes, as long as it is under the banner of 'art', is someone who has lost all interest in what art actually is, or what it is for.  For these poor souls, art is a playground, an entertainment of exquisite esoterica, things or events or short films the like of which no one has seen before - and that is the point.  Whatever you do, if you want to win the Turner Prize, it must not have been done before.  No matter if the paucity of the original conception is akin to a stick drawing of a man by a four year old child verses Rembrandt's last great self portrait, laughing at the ludicrous nature of life (it is truly a fantastic painting), there is no shock or surprise.  It cannot win.  Superficially, we have seen it all before, therefore, there is nothing more to see.  So don't look, don't examine, don't, god forbid, question the veracity of the works you are looking at.  Accept, and be happy that your tight little world of extra-ordinary banality has furnished you once again with a neat little cabal of abstract conceptions that, in years to come, will be washed away by the seas of time.

Well, that is perhaps not quite true.  Occasionally there is something to be said for a work that appears on the shortlist.  But you can lay your bets that they won't win.  And nor should they.  The Turner prize is not about art, never has been.  As I described earlier, originally it was used to reward those that had not been fully recognised, and were becoming to old to be considered 'new'.  But now, it has degenerated into a competition against itself.  Can the prize be more outrageous than the year before, can it create more headlines than ever before?  It is, in short, a very successful marketing exercise, the 'Big Brother' of the art world, that in the years when it was sponsored by Channel 4 Television, must have seen the increase in takings by the Tate gallery gift shop go up by several magnitudes, and footfall into the spaces that during the early years was confined to what is now known as Tate Britain, rise and rise and rise.  And that is a good thing.  Since without that they would not have found the funding for Tate Modern, and I, for one, would not have had the pleasure of walking over the bridge from St. Paul’s Cathedral towards the gallery, pausing to watch the riverboats, and marvel at the view of London, before entering the gallery and finding my way into one of the rooms that holds some of the greatest paintings of the 20th century.

I wrote an article about the Damien Hirst retrospective a few weeks ago, and I commented on how there was actually little or no art in the whole show, though its quality of entertainment I scored at a rather good 7½.  Once out of the show, I went into a free exhibition showing surrealist art from the Tate's collection, and came upon, after many years, Dali's 'Metamorphosis of Narcissus'.  You might think the title pretentious, but it is nothing as to the titles Damien Hirst gives his vacuosities.  The exhibition was appallingly hung, badly displayed in every way, paintings shoved here there and everywhere in a 'it doesn't really matter, its all old stuff' kind of way.  But that Dali - a small painting, filled to every corner and all four edges with imaginative detail, vibrant and vital.  Any one square inch of that painting contained more 'art', more thought, more guts and delight, than the whole of Hirst's retrospective.  But original?  Certainly the image may be, but the conception of smearing pigment saturated linseed oil on a finely woven cotton fabric?  Seen it before.  Been there, done that.  Move on.


  1. I think you should take your game one step further and create a 'post your own work' website, then we can all marvel at these ideas perhaps in their best form, as pure ideas and not actually using any real world resources, space or time

    1. Indeed, the purity of "real" conceptual art that is made in the mind of the one you tell it to! There may well be a website in due course to accompany the book i'm writing featuring 'recipes' for (imagined) well known artworks, which essentially provides the idea, plus instructions on how to make it. But the reality is that many of these things are better as ideas than in reality.

      I did think of doing just pure conceptual art as you suggest, but the problem i think would be that because there would be no limitations, it would soon descend into farce. I could be wrong though, maybe time to give it more thought again...