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Have art prizes had their day?

24 February 2020

The decision to split the 2019 Turner Prize between the four shortlisted artists has divided critics. Do such gestures divest prizes of their power, or open up new ways of judging contemporary art? 

Harry Thorne

‘No prize is an honour,’ wrote Thomas Bernhard, ‘the honour is perverse.’ In My Prizes: An Accounting (2010), a collection of the author’s musings on his relationship to, and vast collection of, literary awards, he spits bile at ‘so-called’ cultural prizes and the ‘feeble-witted’ judges who preside over them; at the ‘vanity, self-prettying and hypocrisy’ of it all.

Which is to say, the hypocrisy in which he himself became embroiled: ‘I remained too weak in all the years that prizes came my way, to say No. […] I despised the people who were giving the prizes but I didn’t strictly refuse the prizes themselves. It was all offensive, but I found myself the most offensive of all.’

Cultural awards are contradictory by nature. They can be era-defining, career-defining, canonising (for better or worse – often worse), yet they are broadly acknowledged to be false indicators of accomplishment. Whether or not we agree with the results, can we accept that ‘merit’, ‘quality’ and ‘achievement’ can be evaluated against a designed criteria? Or, more crucially, should we?

Such questions are enduring. In 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre explained his rejection of the Nobel Prize in Literature with the comment: ‘The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution.’ In recent years, however, these questions have grown louder and more frequent, with creative figures pushing back against the institutions attempting to recognise their work – or, more accurately, against the processes being employed to do so.

In 2019, the Booker Prize twisted its own rules to celebrate two novels, by Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo, a controversial decision that saw detractors note how the first black woman to win the prestigious award had been forced to share it. That same year, the four artists shortlisted for the Turner Prize (Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo, Tai Shani) announced that they would only accept the award as a collective. ‘We feel strongly motivated to […] make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity,’ read Cammock at the presentation ceremony, ‘in art as in society.’

Cammock clarified: ‘If there’s any kind of concerns that we’re somehow undermining the prize, it’s exactly the opposite.’ But undermined it has been. As with the numerous high-profile artists who have chosen to share their awards of late, the Turner Prize verdict (or the judges’ immediate acceptance of it) is indicative of a power shift. Faith in prestigious cultural institutions is wavering. In and of itself, this is no bad thing: institutions should push, and be pushed, to faithfully reflect the communities that they represent and, as such, their systems of evaluation should repeatedly be called into question. But the suggestion that the accepting of an award amounts to an endorsement of societal inequality sets a worrying precedent.

For the likes of Murillo and Abu Hamdan, the latter of whom was awarded the Edvard Munch Prize days after the Turner Prize announcement, the exchanging of capital proper for cultural capital might make financial sense, given the market value of their work. For others, however, the monetary value of an award (the Turner prize comes with £25,000) might prove far more beneficial than the figurative pats on the back that they might receive were they to publicly denounce said award. But denounce they might, because, were they not to do so, they would be indirectly opposing ‘commonality, multiplicity and solidarity’.

There are additional considerations when thinking about the opportunities awards create. What of the few prizes that recognise early-career artists (New Contemporaries), regional arts organisations (Museum of the Year), mid-career women artists (the Freelands Award) or ambitious video projects (Jerwood/FVU Awards)? But our changing attitude towards art awards also signals a more abstract threat: a crisis of criticism.

To declare that certain bodies of work are exempt from judgement is to deny that culture, as a whole, is built upon judgement. When we interact with art, literature, or music, for example, we assess it in relation to all that we have experienced before. To assert that, out of respect for an art form’s subject or intent, it is excused from subjective critical evaluation is to reject that truth and delegitimise criticism as a practice.

If, as Cammock suggested, art is bound to society, then so too is judgement. In our contemporary age, cursed as it is, we must strive to protect both – however perverse they might seem.

Harry Thorne is a writer, editor and critic based in London.

Alistair Hudson

The Turner Prize is firmly established as the principal prize in the art calendar and is fully engrained in the public psyche. It has regularly introduced the general public to the current state of contemporary art, facilitated by an association perfected over the years between media and institution. The success of the prize has come in part from its capacity to shock: an unmade bed, a potter not a painter, architects not artists, a pickled calf or a bum-hole doorway.

Last year in Margate the shock came not from the art but the announcement itself. Artists Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo and Tai Shani chose to share the prize ‘to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity – in art as in society’. The statement drew a standing ovation and seemed genuinely moving; in a time of division here was some unity. The gesture offered a challenge to the prize, or at least its integrity as a competitive sport.

Cue the ensuing debate. For some, this act of selflessness would change the prize for good, even bring it to an end, now that artists had unionised in this way. This might be the case, but I suspect not. An artist I was chatting with not long after confirmed that if they were nominated, they would not be sharing the prize with anyone.

My own jury service for the Turner Prize was in 2015 and resulted in the Assemble collective winning for their regeneration project with residents of the Granby Four Streets neighbourhood in Liverpool. The idea of a multidisciplinary group working outside the art market, or even something ‘not art at all’ triumphing, was seen then as a big challenge to the system. That other art worlds exist was not easy to digest. ‘You’ve broken art!’ someone said on the night. I reassured them that it would be business as usual next year, and it was.

The Turner’s resilience suggests that such art prizes still have a role to play, as long as we live in an age of spectacle. However, they belong to a time that is passing, one rooted in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the ‘exhibitionary’ moment. The emerging shift from mechanistic thinking to ecological thinking – or our habit of thinking about art in isolation from the world rather than as something that is connected to wider cultural or social frameworks – will bring with it a change in emphasis from product to process. We are already seeing the emergence of a more values-driven generation which is in turn driving a more values-based economy. The unionisation of last year’s Turner Prize winners hints at this, in turning the gaze from the prize itself to wider societal issues.

In this context art prizes must evolve so as to support and make visible the process of making art and its effect on the world. Concentrating attention on the singular image or object does not tell the full story of the role that art plays in our culture, reinforcing an idea of creativity complicit with the market rather than enriching a broader social capital. Now is the time to reassert art as a vital process that operates across education, social development, health and the broader economy.

There are some examples of this approach already in play. In recent years, the Artes Mundi prize has worked with the shortlisted artists on long-term commissions and projects in South Wales. The peripatetic Visible Award supports artists, chosen through a quasi-parliamentary public jury process,
to expand and deliver on their socially engaged practices. The point here is to engage with artistic projects that, in a radical and proactive way, are able to rethink our cities or rural communities, question education models and propose alternative models of economic development.

Both these formats exemplify how art prizes can be more open-ended, experimental and creative and less embedded in a singular perception of art as merely complicit in market and spectacle. I would welcome this further dissolution of art into the everyday, and suggest it is a viable approach for thinking about the future of art prizes.

Alistair Hudson is the director of the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery.

From the March 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.