What’s the Point of the Turner Prize, Anyway?


More than anything, the economic fortunes of the art world (and of art capitals like London and New York) have juddered since the 1990s, and even artists successful enough to be nominated for Britain’s biggest prize now find themselves on the losing side of the equation.

This year’s Turner twist was prefigured, to a degree, by a brouhaha around the 2017 Preis der Nationalgalerie, during which the four nominated artists — Jumana Manna, Sol Calero, Iman Issa and the eventual winner, Agnieszka Polska — issued a joint statement that flayed the prize as “more of a celebration of the sponsors and institutions than a moment to engage with the artists and their works.”

They mocked “the self-congratulatory use of diversity as a public-relations tool,” and dismissed the false assumption, common outside the art world, that a prestigious prize nomination provides financial reward.

Under those circumstances, why shouldn’t artists give up on the brass ring and try something new?

O.K., it all does feel slightly ridiculous. The Turner quartet’s subversive act will, paradoxically, affirm their own position within the museums, biennials, fairs and institutions that confer artistic prestige and power.

Still, amid a growing skepticism of art institutions’ purported progressiveness — and a week before a British general election that polls suggest will return to power the Conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson — Mr. Abu Hamdan, Ms. Cammock, Mr. Murillo and Ms. Shani came to the conclusion that they could exert the greatest pressure by turning the authority of the prize inside out.

At the ceremony, Ms. Cammock said on behalf of the four artists that the country’s rightward turn had “made each of us and many of our friends and family again increasingly unwelcome in Britain.” Better to amplify that collective statement, they concluded, than to gamble on what increasingly looks like a minor trophy.



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