Poor Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts editor, seemed close to tears this week when he had to tell viewers that the Turner Prize had been awarded to all four finalists. “Is this the end of the Turner Prize?” he almost sobbed.
Poor man. The Turner Prize, going since 1984, is the invention of Tate and was the particular baby of Nick Serota who revived it in his early days as director. Most of Gompertz’s previous career had been spent at Tate as its director of communications, and he was therefore closely involved in the biggest annual vis arts event.
The point was that the Turner Prize was supposed to offer the first sight of the cutting edge of contemporary art, a signpost to creative development at its inventive power point. But this decision ignores that. All four, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo, and Tai Shani, who had never met before the awards event at Turner Contemporary, asked to be considered a single co-operative and have the prize jointly, because of their “shared commitment to urgent social and political causes”. The jury, chaired by Tate Britain’s director Alex Farquharson, concurred.
“At this time of political crisis in Britain and much of the world, 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 – in art as in society” the artists said in their joint letter to the jury. And the jury were “honoured to be supporting this bold statement of solidarity”, as if they were a trade union making a wildcat strike official.
There is no doubt that politics is a salient trope in some contemporary art. Hamdan makes video installations that explore crimes through sound and performance; Cammock’s films focus on women of Derry-Londonderry during the Troubles; Murillo’s paintings combine with sculpture, performance and sound to reflect displacement and the fallout from globalisation; and Shani is interested in feminism, gender and resistance in her installations, performances and films.
The late Michael Kenny, the sculptor, teacher and probable RA president if the cancer hadn’t got him first, mocked the Turner by saying it could never fulfil its role because you can’t see the cutting edge while its cutting.
But there’s no doubt that there is a zeitgeist of politics in art, and it’s not confined to anarchic young art school graduates – these four are 34, 49, 33 and 43. What I’d like to know, and this might be from an old-fashioned standpoint, is whether their art is any good, not how it’s going to make me vote. What’s their story?
Because it’s poignant that this rare example of artist-power prevailing comes at the fever point of a particularly febrile general election in which personal issues – of the candidates and the electorate – have been in the spotlight like never before. If, as Oscar Wilde said, art imitates life, here it is in action.
What is more interesting to me is that the artists could take control in this way, and it might be pointing to something more significant even than the Turner Prize’s future.
Marine Tanguy (above) runs MTArt, an agency for visual artists like there are for actors, writers and musicians. The amazing thing is that they are not the norm, but they aren’t because the art business has been controlled by the gallery/art fair system, which offers nothing except an empty public wall to hang the stuff on or stand it in front of (the artists have to pay for framing, publicity, catalogue, private view booze, transportation and anything else). And that’s Tanguy’s point – not many artists make it that don’t have private means to keep them alive in the first years. She believes that artists are a minor part of a system in which the market is in control, and is determined to shift the balance to put artists at the centre.
She sees that their studio rental is paid for, their social media organised, their work promulgated, their intellectual copyright safeguarded, the transportation of their work handled and sales and payments dealt with. In return she finds commissioning clients, exhibition spaces, public art projects, the value of their work goes up by an average 150% a year, she takes a modest 30% of sales (galleries take 50% or even 60%) and the artists – she currently has 15 and wants more – give her a work for MTArt’s own collection.
“It’s not so much that we want to democratise art, but we want to democratise artists, making the progenitor of the art the key rather than just a part of the process” she says. “My collectors love the artists, their stories, and if the story’s not there in something we don’t go for it”.
“So I put the artist’s story first”.