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By David Mills (28 November, 1993, The Times)
Art: David Mills joined the 'uncomprehending' who defied critics and dared to enjoy, even make sense of, the Turner prize exhibition.
So, at the Tate Gallery last Tuesday, Rachel Whiteread won, and the Turner prize goes back in its box for another year. I thought I knew all about this annual Pounds 20,000 award "to an artist under 50 for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the preceding 12 months". I read all the articles about both this and last year's Tate exhibition. There were a couple of fools who enthused about the whole shebang, but they were flying in the face of an overwhelming consensus. From my reading, I drew up some rules for writing about the Turner prize. (All quotations are genuine.) Begin by invoking the name of Turner himself (gloss with "he of the ships and seascapes", if writing for a tabloid), stress that he was "all about paint. He loved the stuff"; use the phrase "turning in his grave". Bemoan the lack of figurative painting in the exhibition, invoke the name Lucian Freud. Point out that the Turner prize enlivens the period between bonfire night and Christmas; suggest that it is like an early panto if you are really witty you might say that pantos are now "utterly predictable" and with a flourish add "so, too, is the nature of the painting and sculpture chosen for the Turner prize". (This may overlook the unpredictable inclusion of such items as a rotting cow's head, lifesize mould of a room, the odd painting and so on, but don't let that cramp your sneering.) Say "farce is the word most used of it", even though you are the one who keeps on using it. Say it's all a plot and suggest manipulation behind the scenes: "Did they conspire to choose their favourites"; hint that the director of the Tate, Nicholas Serota, rigs the jury; use such phrases as "full of Marxist or feminist zeal", "lethal cocktail", "pseudo-elite cabal", "the narrow tastes of a small coterie of dealers, gallery curators and art school tutors", "fraudulent apparatus of democracy that is employed to camouflage the narrow orthodoxy of the prize". Don't be afraid of making generalisations, and make them big. This sort of thing: "Public and pundits alike are more virulent in their criticism than ever before." Emphasise that your opinion is (of course) that of the whole nation. It is difficult to get the right tone for this. "The revelation of the incomprehensible to the uncomprehending" is not only patronising, but also nonsense. (How could we ever comprehend the incomprehensible?) Still, the rhetorical tone is good. For the right mix of rhetoric, sense and breathtaking presumption, learn from Giles Auty in The Spectator: "This is why the country as a whole is none too keen to see his (Turner's, see above) name associated with artists for whom no such regard exists." (My italics.) Finally, a liberal scattering of these useful words and phrases is mandatory: "contemptible", "arrogantly silly", "disreputable", "high-flown absurdities", "merely fashionable orthodoxies", "public resentment", "impoverished expressive tool", "monument to prejudice" and "incompetence". Pick out such words as "challenge", "strategy" and "enigma", and jeer at the artist who uses them. If you are Brian Sewell, use the work "cacafuego" (and, for variation, every other year have it printed in italics). If writing for a tabloid simply use the word "con" and say your husband, wife, child and or family pet (goldfish is stretching it a bit, though) could have done it. Oh yes. It is considered respectable to mention the actual works in the exhibition, but there's no need to drone on about them. A couple of paragraphs at the end will do, just say seven tons of rice, giant photographs, inert lump of concrete and striped paintings. Get the names in Vong Phaophanit, Hannah Collins, Rachel Whiteread and Sean Scully respectively adding "dismal", "wretched company" or "a serious problem exists" as the mood takes you.
Thus, I was all ready to bash my piece out inveighing against the (ahem) "totalitarian system" of the art establishment "imposing a virtual tyranny of taste on the rest of the population", ready to wax indignant on behalf of the duped man in the street, when I made the mistake of going to the exhibition on a weekday. I should have gone to one of the press shows, I should have taken up the publicist's offer of arranging a private view all of my own. Instead, I found myself surrounded by the ordinary public and forced to hear their uninformed chatter.
They were prepared to stand in front of the exhibits and think for themselves. Two old men discussed how Phaophanit's piece "looked like waves", how the seeming rigidity of its form belied its construction from grains of rice. Three young women enthused about the "textures" of Scully's paintings. Two ladies from the East End declared Whiteread's Room was not as good as the recently finished house down their way. Why wasn't anyone saying "arrogantly silly", "contemptible" or "impoverished expressive tool"? I felt mild relief when a middle-aged man said he thought Collins should get the prize for being "the least banal".
I was shocked. The public actually enjoy this stuff. Are they mad? I discovered that Stephen Pile, writing in The Daily Telegraph, had had a similar experience. He spent all day at the exhibition and his "vox pop showed that visitors universally liked all four shortlisted artists".
Could it be that the critics are out of touch? That by constantly seeing art only at private viewings, without tiresome Joe Public sticking his ignorant oar in, their prejudices persist untroubled? Of course, this is absolutely right. They have to have their own consistent point of view. Born of their great learning and considerable scholarship, they can continue to believe that the conclusions they have reached about the Turner prize exhibition are absolutely right, but it begins to look a little...what's the word? "contemptible"? "arrogantly silly"? ... when they then claim to be speaking for the nation as a whole, when they make those resounding generalisations about the uncomprehending.
A similar arrogance was evident in the tiresome campaign of the K Foundation. It spent about Pounds 200,000 on advertising, sometimes in this very newspaper and incomprehensibly during the Channel 4 broadcast of the prize-giving, offering Pounds 40,000 to the worst artist in Britain and reprinted a "shortlist" that was the Turner prize shortlist. Rachel Whiteread collected the money on the steps of the Tate and promised to use it to finance work by other artists. Again the assumption is that the public agreed with them that this was the worst art in Britain. Doesn't it strike anyone as odd that a group of people who made their money with such artistic endeavours as a disco-version of the Dr Who theme should be suggesting that contemporary art was somehow more fatuous than that?
Perhaps there is a conspiracy afoot, but it is a conspiracy on the part of the art critics to deny the public any judgment of their own. Then again, perhaps Serota is an arch-conspirator, manipulating the jury selection to get his own way. I hope so. For too long our best public institutions have been run by bland, faceless men: at least, Serota as conspirator is Serota as man of vision. He may be wrong, but at least he believes in something coherent. Rather than just marking time, he is defining a map of contemporary art, and has certainly succeeded in the prize's aim of promoting public discussion of contemporary art.
I have to get in my obligatory mention of the artists and their work at the end now. Sean Scully's striped paintings are well crafted, but tedious, second-division stuff. Hannah Collins's inflated snaps are not worth a shrug. Rachel Whiteread could be heading into a deadend. Vong Phaophanit's Neon Rice Field was compelling in its disturbing calm. What did you think?
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