Turner Prize stirs new debate after Saatchi blast

Artist Martin Boyce has won the 2011 Turner Prize with his 'dreamlike' and 'melancholy' installations. Critics are delighted, but many remain unconvinced by modern art.

The stars of British art were gathered last night at the BALTIC Centre in Gateshead for the 28th Turner Prize, a £40,000 award bestowed annually by a jury of artistic grandees on the person they feel has produced the year’s finest and most striking exhibited works.

The Turner is the most important art prize in Britain, and one of the most famous in the world. Victory propels the winner into the artistic stratosphere – the dizzy heights where an artist can morph into a celebrity, whose works suddenly sell not for thousands but for millions of pounds.

The prize is also reliably one of the most controversial. Veteran critic Brian Sewell once referred to the ceremony as an ‘annual farce’. MP Kim Howells called the Turner something too rude to print – and he was Britain’s culture minister at the time.

Indeed, the Turner judges sometimes seem almost to seek out controversy. They provoked outrage in 1999 by shortlisting Tracey Emin’s unmade bed for the prize. In 2001 they were even more provocative, giving the honours to Martin Creed for an empty room in which the lights went on and off. The rumblings of traditionalist discontent threatened to become an explosion.

This year, however, the usual blast of criticism has come from an unexpected source. Only days before the winner was announced, legendary collector and modern art guru Charles Saatchi turned his guns not just on the Turner but on the whole contemporary artistic world.

It was a spectacular broadside. ‘Being an art buyer these days,’ Saatchi wrote, is ‘indisputably vulgar.’ The art world is ‘toecurling’, full of ‘self-regard’ and ‘peacock excess’.

‘My dark little secret,’ he went on, ‘is that I don't actually believe many people in the art world have much feeling for art and simply cannot tell a good artist from a weak one.’

In the picture

This will be music to the ears of long-standing Turner-haters. Groups like the ‘Stuckists’ say you can’t pick out good mainstream modern artists for a simple reason: there aren’t any. They have spent years protesting against the Turner Prize, calling for a return to the good old days when making great art meant painting a picture. Art, they say, demands craft, effort and skill as well as vision.

Not so, reply more mainstream critics. ‘Art begins with the idea of art.’ Indeed, the great revolutionary idea of the 20th Century was that anything can be art – if it is so described by an artist. Art, according to this view, is not limited to a particular medium like painting or sculpture. Rather it is something greater and more abstract: something that lives not in the realm of objects but in the realm of ideas.

You Decide

  1. Cananythingbe art?
  2. What is the relationship between art and skill? Critics of modern art often say ‘a child could have done that,’ about works they dislike. Is that a valid criticism?


  1. Create your own Turner Prize artwork. It can be as abstract or conceptual as you like.
  2. Do some further research on this year’s four shortlisted artists. Which would you have chosen to win?

Some People Say...

“If it’s not beautiful, it isn’t art.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So art can beanything?
That’s certainly one idea. It goes back to a landmark work by the French artist Marcel Duchamp:Fountain.
Why was that a landmark?
Because it wasn’t a fountain. It was a public urinal that Duchamp had found and entered for an exhibition.
Did it get in?
It was rejected, after much debate. But the point was clear: art was now about ideas and concepts, not about skillful handiwork and graceful execution.
And was this year’s Turner shortlist ‘conceptual’ in this way?
Actually, the 2011 nominees are a comparatively traditional bunch, including a sculptor and even a realist painter. Critics have been very positive about the selection.

Word Watch

Tracey Emin
Emin first hit the headlines in 1997 when her work appeared in an exhibition called Sensations, put together by Charles Saatchi. Along with Damien Hirst (who famously once exhibited a shark pickled in formaldehyde) she was a leading member of the Young British Artists movement, which dominated UK art in the 1990s.
This metaphor comes from the old days of naval warfare, in which wooden sailing ships attacked each other with lines of cannons along the sides of their hulls. A full blast from all the cannons on one or other side of the ship was called a ‘broadside’, and struck with devastating force.
A small but high-profile group of artists who, for years, staged demonstrations outside Turner Prize exhibitions to publicise their own traditionalist agenda. Stuckists adopted their name after Tracey Emin said to one of the movement’s founders: ‘Your paintings are stuck, you are stuck! Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!’
The ‘medium’ of an artwork is the material in which that artwork is composed. So a painting might have oil paints as a medium, or a sculpture might be in bronze. The word ‘medium’ is used in other contexts too. The media – i.e. the press – are so-called because newspapers and television are ‘media’ (the plural of ‘medium’) for news.


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