The Turner Prize at 30: A Look Back at Britain’s Infamous Cultural Bellwether

Ben Eastham
Nov 26, 2014 2:20PM

The Turner Prize, which celebrates its 30th birthday this year, is an enduring symbol of Britain’s love/hate relationship with contemporary art and a lightning rod for debate around the state of our culture. Like Margaret Thatcher, Europe, and the legalization of drugs, the Turner Prize is a subject to be avoided if you are uncertain about the ideological leanings of those around the dinner table. To be in principle for the Turner Prize is to identify yourself not only as a supporter of contemporary art, but more broadly as a progressive at ease with the modern world. To denounce it, in contrast, is to set yourself up as an opponent to the perceived hucksterism and con-artistry of conceptual art, and more generally as a champion of traditional values in art and society. These positions are, in the majority of cases, based not on considered appraisal of the nominated artists but instead on personal, and largely unshakable, convictions. The Turner Prize is unusually conspicuous for an art prize because it stands on the barricades of British cultural life; whether it has in its 30 years redrawn or merely entrenched the battle lines is less clear. 

Awarded for an outstanding exhibition by a British visual artist under 50, the prize was established to inject some life into a moribund domestic scene. In 1984, contemporary art was a marginal pursuit whose most important native practitioners (Richard Long, Gilbert & George, Ian Hamilton Finlay) were better known abroad, with the era’s cultural mainstream occupied by literature and music. New art was the subject of popular suspicion: a few years earlier the Daily Mirror had reported on the purchase of Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (better known as “bricks”) with the front-page headline, “What a load of rubbish.” Indeed, it was only to disparage or pun upon it that the popular press ever seemed to give substantial coverage to contemporary art.

Capitalizing on that fact, the Turner Prize entered its stride with the ascent of the Young British Artists at the beginning of the 1990s. Loud, irreverent, and confrontational, the most prominent YBAs were provocative in much the same look-at-us-having-lots-of-fun way as the Rolling Stones had been 30 years previously. The tabloids saw a promising story and hammed up their bafflement and outrage, establishing a mutually beneficial relationship between a press hungry for sensationalist content and a sensationalist art scene hungry for press. The Sun, playing the game, seemed annually to explode in Blimpish fury at the notion that excrement (Chris Ofili), emptiness (Martin Creed), a woman’s sex life (Tracey Emin), sex toys (Jake & Dinos Chapman), fancy dress (Marvin Gaye Chetwynd), or anything other than paint or marble might constitute art. I still imagine newsrooms bowed down on the day that nominations are announced, praying for an artist whose practice involves something conducive to an editorial diatribe against the chicanery of young artists.

So successful was the Turner Prize in polarizing opinion that it possesses something akin to an alternative history, traceable through the awards that have sprung up to oppose it. The tradition began in 1993, when the K Foundation awarded the £40,000 “Anti-Turner Prize” to the “worst artist in Britain.” Rachel Whiteread, not coincidentally 1993’s Turner Prize winner, donated the money to good causes. The Sun, famously fond of puns, reacted to Martin Creed’s 2001 win by turning its attention to the “Turnip Prize,” awarded each year to works of art that fulfil the “lack of effort” and “is it shit?” criteria. The prize has even incited the formation of an opposition party: for several years the Stuckists, a group of counter-revolutionary, paintbrush-wielding idealists congregated outside the ceremony dressed in clown costumes. It was all great fun.

The Turner Prize has made household names of several formidable artists (Grayson Perry, Jeremy Deller, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, all of whom were nominated but not all of whom won) and given proper recognition to others (Richard Long, Steve McQueen, Simon Starling, Tomma Abts), but its real value is not its capacity to identify excellence. It is, instead, a cherished part of British cultural life, an annual opportunity for even those who never enter a gallery to express their opinion on the purpose and state of art. Like Christmas, the Turner Prize is an argument that happens every year, and, like Christmas, we look forward to it whether we do or do not believe in the institution itself.

—Ben Eastham, co-founder and editor of The White Review

Ben Eastham