Just what is the Turner Prize for? The early years of the Prize, from its beginnings in 1984 to its sudden (temporary) disappearance in 1990, saw intense debate about exactly how a prize for contemporary visual art should be organised.
One of the first issues was the naming of the Prize. Many people were at a loss to know what it had to do with the early nineteenth-century artist J.M.W. Turner, and there were conflicting views about whether or not he would have approved. The founders of the Prize, the Tate Gallerys Patrons of New Art, had in fact chosen Turner because hed wanted to establish a prize for young artists and because, despite being controversial in his own day, he was now seen as one of the greatest British artists.
For much of the early years, there was widespread feeling that the whole idea of a race and a winner was demeaning to art. There was particular concern about the shortlist, since all but one would be seen as losers in a race they hadnt chosen to enter. There was also uncertainty about what the Prize was for: was it to acknowledge the work of Britains most reputable senior artists? Or should it highlight new, up-and-coming talent? And if you had both types of artist on a shortlist, how could you decide between them?
There was also some controversy about who was funding the prize, as the first sponsor remained anonymous. Suspicions were raised - was there some hidden commercial interest pulling the strings?
The first winner – Malcolm Morley – was unpopular, mainly because he had lived in the US since 1958 and he didnt even turn up to receive his award. The second winner, Howard Hodgkin, met with widespread approval.
1987 saw some initial changes in response to criticisms. The scale of the exhibition was increased, and the rubric was changed so that the winner was not the person who had made the greatest contribution to art in Britain, but one whod made an outstanding contribution, making clear that the Prize wasnt automatically awarded to Britains greatest living artist, but to someone whod made the most significant impact in the previous years. And a new sponsor was found: the first sponsor (who turned out to be Oliver Prenn, a member of the Patrons of New Art, rather than anyone more sinister) was replaced by an American investment company.
In 1988 the arrival of a new director at the Tate, Nicholas Serota, brought a re-think of the Prizes terms and conditions. From now on it would only be given to artists (in previous years anyone working in the arts could be nominated, including curators, critics and administrators – Serota himself had been nominated in 1986 for the re-opening of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London). More significantly, dissatisfaction with the combative selection process led to the annual shortlist being dropped, and with it the exhibition of work by shortlisted artists. Instead, the jury simply announced a winner (Tony Cragg), who was offered a solo show at the Tate the following year.
Unpopular as the shortlisting process had been, its abandonment caused an even greater outcry. Critics and public alike hated being deprived of the opportunity to compare works, to disapprove of the selection, and the fun of trying to predict who would – or wouldnt – win. So in 1989 the shortlist made a comeback, in a slightly modified form: the jury reviewed the art shown in the last twelve months and commended seven names, before awarding the prize to one: Richard Long.
But still the Sunday Times argued that the prize was fatally trapped between those who thought the whole notion of a race and a winner was demeaning to art, and those who argued that a competition was the best way to attract widespread interest, but that the Tate was half-hearted about attracting media coverage. And in the following year, the bankruptcy of the sponsor, Drexel Burnham Lambert, forced the prize to be cancelled. Some feared that it would never surface again.
The Prize bounced back in 1991, with a new sponsor – Channel 4 – and double the prize money – now £20,000. The shortlist, and exhibition of work by shortlisted artists, was reinstated. An age limit was introduced for the first time: now only artists under 50 were eligible, to make it clear that the prize was to highlight outstanding recent work, rather than to reward the achievements of a lifetime. Some thought the jury took this to extremes when the shortlist for 1991 included three artists under thirty.
1993 was something of a watershed, with a marked increase in the number of visitors coming to see the exhibition. The winner was Rachel Whiteread, despite outstandingly vituperative attacks on her work House (a cast of the interior of the last remaining house of a late-nineteenth century terrace in the East End of London) and the local councils determination to knock it down.
But it was now becoming clear that there was an increasingly wide gap between the condemnation of the critics and the responses of visitors. The main focus of jeering from the critics in 1993 was Vong Phaophanits Neon Rice Field. But a series of interviews conducted by the Daily Telegraph showed that in fact few visitors found this a difficult work. Many of the staff said they felt the warm red glow gave a strong sense of the life force in this simple white foodstuff that half the planet depended on, and everyone seemed to enjoy its uncomplicated beauty.
In the following year the Prize was ten years old, and by now it seemed to have achieved the impossible: establishing a contemporary art event as something of national concern. 1994 also saw a notable trend towards more serious discussion of the work of the shortlisted artists, which the Gallery boosted by the introduction of explanatory wall texts and an additional room giving information about the artists, including a film made by Illuminations for Channel 4.
Damien Hirsts Mother and Child, Divided brought in an unprecedented number of visitors in the following year, as well as fuelling a tidal wave of tabloid excitement. By contrast, the 1996 shortlist was widely seen as boring – and worse, not a single womans name appeared on it.
Things swung the other way in 1997 with the first all-woman shortlist, which led to some accusations of political correctness but which most agreed reflected genuine achievement. In 1998 the widely reported (but mistaken) belief that Chris Ofili painted with elephant dung was a gift to cartoonists.
The nomination of Tracey Emin in 1999 made headline news in the tabloids. Emins My Bed completely hijacked the exhibition, sparking violent critical response and dividing opinion along the lines of accessibility versus elitism. The Financial Times was not alone in citing Emin as the peoples choice, although tabloid coverage of her work prompted Chris Smith, then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to claim that some young British artists were giving the country a bad name abroad. Some critics were still unwilling to accept either videos or installations as art, highlighting the challenge facing Tate Modern, which was scheduled to open in the following spring. The winner, Steve McQueen, worked in film, photography and sculpture.
After the upheaval of 1999, the 2000 shortlist appeared much more conservative. It included two painters (Glenn Brown and Michael Raedecker) but only one native-born artist (Glenn Brown).
Nicholas Serota defended the decision to include artists not born in Britain by arguing that if the Turner Prize had been around in the 1740s, the Italian painter Canaletto, who was working in London at the time, would surely have been on the shortlist. But it was British artist Glenn Brown whose work hit the headlines when he was accused of plagiarism for apparently copying a painting by Tony Roberts reproduced on the cover of a science-fiction book.
Brian Sewell set the tone in 2001 by inviting readers of the Evening Standard to nominate their own shortlist, in an attempt to expose what he saw as the undemocratic nature of the selection process. Once again there were no women on the shortlist. The piece exhibited by the eventual winner, Martin Creed, was widely ridiculed.
In 2002 it was Fiona Banners hand-written wordscape describing a pornographic film that inevitably drew attention from the press. But this year also saw nomination forms being made widely available for the first time, appearing in a national newspaper (the Guardian) rather than specialist art magazines. It was also the first time that members of the public were invited to leave their comments on boards in the Reading Room. These made it clear that visitors were looking and deciding for themselves. They also showed that Keith Tyson was the publics favourite as well as the jurys.
But one comment, left by a government minister, Kim Howells, made front page headlines. He described the exhibits as cold, mechanical bullshit. Tate refused to comment; others pointed out that, whether or not Kim Howells was right about this year, if the last twenty years of a prize which Howells dismissed as having produced nothing worthwhile, had thrown up artists of the stature of Antony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, Anish Kapoor, Gilbert & George, and Howard Hodgkin, then it couldnt be all bad.
2003 marked the twentieth anniversary of the Turner Prize, a year when the public voted Anish Kapoor as their favourite shortlisted artist of all time. With Jake and Dinos Chapman, Anya Gallaccio, Willie Doherty and Grayson Perry as nominees, this years Turner Prize shortlist was considered a mature and uncontentious group of artists.
The Chapman Brothers were considered the favourites to win and their sexually explicit sculpture of blow-up dolls shown alongside a series of altered Goya prints triggered some controversy. However, it was Grayson Perry and his disturbingly beautiful pottery that eventually won the Turner Prize. Pictures of him dressed up as his alter-ego Claire graced all of the major newspapers, with headlines like Transvestite potters abuse vases help win Turner Prize.
In 2004 the Turner Prize was dominated by serious political ideas reflecting the tense international climate since the war on Iraq. Kutlug Atamans video-based installation portrayed an Arab community who had suffered loss, while Jeremy Deller exhibited documentation of his journey through Texas. Langlands and Bells Zardads Dog, a film of the first capital trial in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban, caught the medias attention when it was withdrawn from the exhibition because it might influence an ongoing trial of an Afghan warlord at the Old Bailey.
The show received mixed reviews from critics. Some celebrated the relevance of the exhibition while others argued that without any shock value the Turner Prize had become boring. The fact that all of the shortlisted artists displayed film – even Yinka Shonibare who is best known for his sculpture – triggered a debate within the media and public about the boundaries between video art and documentary filmmaking. The chosen winner was the least controversial aspect of the show. When Jeremy Deller was announced, for once critics, the public and even the bookies all agreed that the right decision had been made.
Essay reproduced from a publication produced to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Turner Prize in 2004.