The Turner Prize: why we need to stop bitching about it
With the announcement of the 2016 Turner nominees, we open up the debate a bit
The nominees for the Turner Prize 2016 have been announced. Helen Marten makes sculptural installations, rich in elusive references; Josephine Pryde is an artist who thinks a lot about the gallery environment and is being nominated for a San Francisco show that featured a miniature freight train that could ferry gallery viewers around the space; Michael Dean makes sculptural work out of discarded bits of the urban landscape, and Anthea Hamilton is a sculpture and installation artist whose nominated show features what appears to be a brick wall with a giant pair of sculpted buttocks sticking through a hole in it.
The prize, which is worth £40,000, is split between the artists, with £25,000 going to the winner and £5000 each going to the other three nominees. Already, one part of the media will be working itself into a froth about the kind of thing that gets nominated for art prizes these days although to be fair, the Daily Telegraph has heaved a small sigh of relief that the art is more sculpture-y and less conceptualish than usual, while the Daily Mail has yet to comment, presumably because it's still waiting for the red mist to go away. (When Grayson Perry won the Turner in 2003, the Mail headline was 'Transvestite wins Turner Prize'.) Another part of the media will be talking pious guff about how the Turner Prize is a barometer of the nation, or how it's useful because it gets young people into art galleries, or how it provides opportunities for emerging artists.
Never mind all that. Let's talk about money.
One of the commonly repeated complaints people make about modern art is that it couldn't exist if it wasn't subsidised. But lots of things couldn't exist if they weren't subsidised: the NHS, for example. Okay, but the NHS is a beloved national institution, and we're talking about art here. It is suggested, by some commentators, that modern art ought to be somehow robust enough to exist in a free market. But, apart from the fact that no market is free, what about all the other activities that couldn't exist without public funding? What about sport? Athletics, for example, or most of the football leagues below the Premiership? We could complain that they couldn't exist if they weren't subsidised, but nobody's going to do that, because it would alienate a lot more readers than merely those who attend visual art events. Journalists and politicians who earn considerably more than £25K in a year like to imply that any art that's really worth doing is going to get made anyway, and that real artists make art for love of art, Goddammit, not because they want to be paid a living wage for it. After all, how is making a giant sculpture of a pair of buttocks a proper day's work?
For various good historical reasons (giving Marcel Duchamp a really hard stare, right now), the context for understanding what's going on in visual art has shifted dramatically over the last century. Most people who don't follow visual art matters haven't followed the shift, with the result that much modern art looks opaque to people. But this still doesn't explain why people work themselves into such a state about so relatively little money being spent on it, because compared to most institutions, the visual arts are dirt cheap. Not, to be sure, at the top level, but if you want to earn big money as an artist, you’d better be dead. Picasso, Van Gogh and Warhol heavily populate lists of the most expensive artworks, but the most money ever paid for a painting is $300m for Willem de Kooning's 1955 Interchange.
Is Interchange a great painting? Yes. Is it worth $300m? Hell, no. But when you talk about artists at this financial level, it's like talking about JK Rowling as if she were just another successful author, as opposed to - as Forbes magazine noted in 2004 - the first ever person to earn a billion dollars just by writing books. The £25K that the Turner Prize winner gets is not very much money. Interestingly enough, it's roughly comparable to the average salary of a UK newspaper journalist. But unlike journalists, even freelancers, artists have serious running costs. When artists make art, especially if they make large and complex objects as opposed to writing things down on bits of paper (not a dig, David Shrigley, we love you too), they usually have to pay for the materials themselves, and if they have assistants they need to pay them, and if they have to transport works from one place to another they need to pay for that too. They usually need to pay rent on their workspace, unlike people like me who type on machinery we don't own which, if it goes wrong, will be replaced at our employer's expense. They also have to, you know, eat food and live somewhere, and some of them even have the nerve to want families and the occasional holiday.
Why isn't there a similar prejudice against writers? Well, there kind of is, inasmuch as writers are routinely expected to be fine with not being paid, as Scottish novelist Sara Sheridan pointed in an article which, as she tartly noted, she didn't get paid for. However, the Man Booker Prize is worth £50K. Would you have read any of the winners if they hadn't won it? Were you a massive Hilary Mantel fan before Wolf Hall? You were? Good for you. She's great. But she was great before she won the Booker, too. Or how about the Booker International Prize? That's another 50 grand, right there. How are you getting on with 2014's winner, László Krasznahorkai? Not so well, eh? Try 2013's winner Lydia Davis, although she is the closest modern fiction gets to a Turner winner in that some of her short stories are one sentence long. In reality, it seems that the free market works like it's supposed to. For all their visibility in the media, visual artists really do get paid the little that the market deems they're worth, and when people complain about it, it's either out of pointless vindictiveness or sheer envy of anyone who gets to be admired for doing what they love.
In the meantime, we'd vote for Anthea Hamilton. If the visual arts are good for anything, it's a giant arse staring out of the pages of your newspaper. And so beautifully made.
The Turner Prize 2016 is at Tate Britain from 27 Sep 2016–8 Jan 2017.