Remember me … 2005 Turner prize winner Simon Starling and his work, Shedboatshed. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP
Here’s what I think has been the trouble with the Turner prize in recent years. Well, probably for the last 10 years. It’s not that it doesn’t reward “figurative artists” (does such a category even exist? Does anyone say, “I’m a figurative artist”?), or that it pushes video, photography, etc. The Turner made its name by championing the avant garde and must always do so. There is a perfect possibility that in years to come – perhaps very soon, given how the world is turning upside-down – “avant garde” will mean, say, expressive painting, as it did in the 1980s. You only have to consider the fact that Nicholas Serota once championed Julian Schnabel to realise there is no permanent definition of what constitutes newness in art. Today’s obsessions will be tomorrow’s old hat. Out of it all some good emerges – anyway, that’s what you have to hope.
No, what has, I think, made the Turner less classic is the fact that judges feel they have to differentiate a Turner aesthetic from the crowd-pleasing art that succeeds elsewhere. This dates back to 1999 when Tracey Emin was shortlisted. Her bed turned the Turner into a show, a sensation – which it had flirted with before, but not to this extent.
Since then – not through any conspiracy, but because this is how taste tends to work – the general approach of Turner juries seems to have been to reward something called “seriousness”, and, as a baseline rule, to avoid rewarding the so-called “young British artist” generation any more than it has been rewarded. The Turner has become about (a) discovering post-YBA artists with alternative voices to the Quinns and Emins and (b) selecting from within that huge category artists with – to use artspeak – “rigour” in their “practice”.
Bloody boring artists, in other words.
Last year, four boring artists fought it out in a boring exhibition. With certain exceptions, notably the great Jeremy Deller, too many Turners have been awarded to artists with rigorous practices and no imagination. Like that German painter and that guy with the shed boat. Oh look it’s a shed. No, it’s a boat. Amazing.
Visual excitement, visceral imagery, wit, personality and – yes – even a bit of technical ingenuity are not bad things in art. They’re the strengths that make it last. I believe several British artists have exhibited these strengths this year, but will the 2009 Turner jury have the courage to reward them, or will it get mired in the art world’s version of stuffy respectability? Only time will tell.