Judgment day

J.J. Charlesworth on last year’s Turner Prize

By J.J. Charlesworth

Turner Prize 2019 winners. © Stuart Wilson

“When there is already so much that divides and isolates people and communities, we feel strongly motivated to use the occasion of the Prize to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity.” So read Turner Prize nominee Helen Cammock, as she stood onstage with her fellow nominees Oscar Murillo, Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Tai Shani, having declared that they would accept the prize as “a collective”. “We ... are all the winners of this year’s Turner Prize”, Cammock declared, to whoops from the invited audience gathered in Margate, going on to explain that “We believe when grouped together such practices become incompatible with the competition format, whose tendency is to divide and individualise.”

It’s ironic, perhaps, that having made a grand gesture for solidarity and collectivity, the artists’ decision (enthusiastically endorsed by the prize’s jury), should so immediately divide and polarise opinion. For many commentators, the culture of prizes and prize-giving and winner-picking is outmoded, no longer appropriate for the time. For the Guardian’s Adrian Searle, ‘subverting the game is something artists are supposed to do’, and prizes force ‘artists whose works and attitudes have nothing to do with one another [to be] pitted against one another for no good reason’. Writing in ApolloNiru Ratnam similarly agreed that ‘accepting a nomination and then collectively refusing to abide by the rules is a … powerful gesture, [questioning] whether the format of pitting artists against each other is appropriate for the current political and social context in which they work.’

So, hot on the heels of the Booker Prize jury awarding the literary gong jointly to two of the six nominees (Margaret Atwood and Bernadine Evaristo) and after a string of instances in which winning artists have split their award with their fellow nominees, the Turner Prize winners were jumping onto the growing sentiment that accepting a winner-based artistic prize is tantamount to endorsing a society based on division and inequality.

The problem with that is that it’s nothing more than an analogy, and a weak one at that. After all, although we might not care for the spectacle of bright lights, golden envelopes and VIP award-ceremony crowds, art awards aren’t (as far as I know) some form of sadistic affirmation of social division, exclusion and injustice, the violent cultural affirmation of tyranny. But that’s what artists, in their desire to be seen as thoughtful, socially engaged and politically progressive individuals, suggest by seizing the platform of art awards to make a point.

Implicitly, they were accepting that their work deserved to be nominated, that their work should be seen as the best, among all the art made in the UK in the last year

In fact, what prizes mostly represent is the celebration of artistic achievement. And the reason that achievement is recognised as such is because we judge. Judging isn’t just the prerogative of judging panels held behind closed doors, or curators making or breaking artists’ careers, but is something that belongs to everyone. Prizes represent, in a dinner-jacket-and-champagne outfit, the fact that art in a pluralist and liberal society is something we all get to criticise, comment on, argue over and judge. ‘Criticism’, in its oldest root, means to divide and to sort, between the good and the bad, or the case of shortlist prizes, the best and the not-quite-so-good.

In a sad paradox, however, by refusing to be judged and by sidestepping any chance of their work being criticised, the Turner Prize nominees unwittingly reinforced the cynical notion that prize-giving is an empty exercise in the bestowing of privilege and career power. After all, these four artists weren’t so affronted by the metaphor of division, injustice and inequality to refuse their nomination outright. Implicitly, they were accepting that their work deserved to be nominated, that their work should be seen as the best, among all the art made in the UK in the last year. (Nor did it stop them accepting the prize money, or accepting other prizes: Lawrence Abu Hamdan, only a few days after the Turner Prize award, happily pocketed the less high-profile but equally big-money Edvard Munch Prize – a tidy £41,000, which Abu Hamdan didn’t split, since there was no shortlist to split it with.)

But most at fault were the judges themselves. After all, art prizes gain their legitimacy from the fact that in awarding a prize, the judges have to explain themselves for the choice they make

Critics, too, seem increasingly uncomfortable with judging and criticising. In his Guardian comment, Searle opined that newspaper critics ‘collude in the game. We are expected to pick winners and losers, and to judge – rather more publicly than the actual judges of the prize.’ To which one might wonder; aren’t critics supposed to judge? And if not, why bother with prominent art critics and their influential public platforms? What justifies their choices and their pronouncements and, eventually, their status?

But most at fault – since prizes are based on judging – were the judges themselves. After all, art prizes gain their legitimacy from the fact that in awarding a prize, the judges have to explain themselves for the choice they make. No prize has ever been awarded on the admission of a judge who has said, ‘I’m currently dating the winner’s gallerist’, or that ‘everyone else is giving them an award, so we did too’. In shortlisting artists for prizes, the judges have to offer their critical opinion of why an artwork is the best of what is out there. In selecting shortlisted artists, and eventually winners, judges have to give their reasons for why the rest of us, the public, should consider these artworks as the best in there is. Not judging, not being able to decide between six, four or two (in the case of the Booker Prize judges), reveals the lack of belief in making a case for the different qualities of artworks, and being, in the final instance, able to offer a common standard for all of them, and of convincing the public that these are important aspects of what they are being asked to consider.

There, however, is the where the uncertainty lies. What are the criteria by which these artists and their work are proposed as the best this year? It turns out that, for the Tate, as Tate director Maria Balshaw declared in her introductory address, what really mattered in this year’s nominees was the “shared commitment … to work which is collaborative, socially engaged and fearlessly committed to a positive change in the world”. For Balshaw, “these artists express for us the urgent issues of our time: Inequality injustice, intolerance, the displacement of peoples, the suppressions of identities and histories.” In other words, these artists are important principally because of the social issues they deal with, not the qualities (or the quality) of the art they make.

It’s not surprising, then, that nobody wanted to judge – when the political issues such as these are just as righteous and as worthy as each other, who would dare choose between them? It’s worth recalling that political grandstanding on art awards is not new. In 1972, in an early protest against what nowadays gets called ‘artwashing’, the left-wing art critic and novelist John Berger was awarded the Booker Prize, about £65,000 in today’s money. Berger, a radical leftist and one who knew the value of self-publicity, declared he was going to give half his winnings to the black revolutionary group the Black Panthers. But at least Berger did not refuse his prize, and the implication that his novel, G, was the best that year. Instead, he took his winnings, made his (political) criticisms about Booker – who, he pointed out made its fortune in its exploitation of workers in the Caribbean sugar plantations – and turned the money (in part) to radical ends. (In case anyone needs reminding, The Tate, too, was paid for from the profits of the work of sugar plantation workers.)

There are of course those who would criticise the politics these artists espouse, but that’s beside the point. Art prizes are not awarded for the best politics. They’re awarded for the best art. And when judges and critics prefer to applaud political gestures over artistic value, everyone loses.

Online exclusive published on 13 December 2019