As winter glides into spring, furry animals have begun to emerge from hibernation. Trees are decked with blossom, flower petals have started to open, and mosquitos are prepping their proboscises for another delicious summer of blood. It’s time to bring out the picnic blankets and head to the park. But wait! Is that rain I can feel in the air? The drip-drop of a late April shower? No, it’s the fresh spray of spittle from the mouths of newspaper critics bloviating about how contemporary art isn’t relevant enough to the lives of 60-something men! Which in Britain means it must be Turner Prize time, when nominated artists are backslapped by their friends, pilloried in the papers, and serenaded by their enemies with groans of envy and conspiratorial whispers that the whole prize jamboree is rigged/irrelevant/not-like-it-was-back-when-Tracey-got-drunk-on-TV-in-’97-and-anyway-what’s-Keith-Allen-up-to-these-days?
Looking back home from my perch in the USA, an award that generates a national conversation about contemporary art is unthinkable here, and so criticism of the Turner Prize is always instructive to study. Even the most vituperative attacks on it can tell us something about what the culture values or feels anxious about. One evergreen accusation levelled at the Turner Prize is that it’s insider baseball, showcasing art meaningful only to the cultural politics of a small few. (Last year’s prize exhibition, held in the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, was visited by a self-appointed cultural elite of 45,000 people in the first month alone.) Yet the same criticism is occasionally made by art professionals too: the prize represents ‘art world politics,’ which insinuates that there is an art world inside the art world, a ‘deep state’ that is using artists as chess pieces in a glass bead game of power and money. Certainly there are vested interests, consciously and unconsciously expressed, in all walks of life, and no end of shady games go on in the art industry, yet nobody in the many different art worlds that exist is organized enough – or even agrees with each other enough – to bother to rig the system for this prize. Speaking of bias, you should read this article knowing I was a juror for the 2017 Turner, and not only am I still awaiting the brown paper envelope full of cash to arrive from the Illuminati, but I was even informed by a gallerist representing one of last year’s nominees that the Turner was irrelevant. So much for kickbacks.
Persistent debates about the Turner’s relevance, both inside and outside the professionalized art industry, tell us that the art system is fascinated by its own politics and worries about contemporary art’s traction on society. The world is in crisis (hardly news to anyone with eyes), and the Turner Prize – with all its attendant questions of what constitutes ‘British art’ – is being staged under the Damoclean conditions of Brexit. Some of us involved in art want to believe that we can do something in response, that we can make ourselves useful. (To whom is a matter of debate.) That desire is reflected in this year’s shortlist. The work of the four 2018 nominees – Forensic Architecture, Naeem Mohaiemen, Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thompson – has been described by Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson as ‘tackling the most pressing political and humanitarian issues of today.’ Many urgent, big ‘P’ political topics are in there, including surveillance, human rights abuses and state accountability (Forensic Architecture); post-colonialism, migration and histories of the Left (Mohaiemen); social injustice (Thompson) and identity (Prodger).
When cornered at parties by artists who describe their work as ‘political’ I usually find myself eyeing the nearest escape route before my face is melted off by the glare of sanctimony emanating from their eyes and the crypto-messianic implication that – as Donald Trump also claimed during his 2016 US presidential campaign – only they can fix the world’s problems. (If I never have to see another exhibition in which global issues are ‘artsplained’ to me by someone whose idea of research involves reading the same New York Times non-fiction bestsellers as idiots like me, I’ll be a happy man.) Still, we remain deeply anxious about current affairs, and the question of whether art is capable of ‘tackling the most pressing political and humanitarian issues’ of the moment dominates conversation. It has caused some artists to retreat inwards, and others to go on the offensive. It has sparked internecine fights about identitarian rights to speech and ethical positions, and encouraged any half-intelligent person to take a long, hard look at their own value systems. The phrase ‘now more than ever…’ prefaces so many calls to action in the arts that it has become a banality, but even so. Now more than ever. Etcetera.
That this year’s Turner shortlist showcases art that explicitly reflects the inequities and complications of the world is a good thing. At least, it is so long as we’re clear about the language we use to describe what it’s doing. Farquharson’s remark that these artists are ‘tackling’ politics reminds me that we should consider our verbs carefully. ‘Tackling’ – just like the phrase ‘deals with’ – suggests a direct involvement. It seems to imply that the artists are protagonists whose work has a substantial, causal effect on the world around them. (‘Now my video essay is finished, I think you’ll find we can finally wrap up the Korean peace talks, guys.’) This may actually be true in the case of Forensic Architecture, whose work has been used as evidence in international courts of law, but the truth is most ‘political’ art is commentary and reflection, and the degree to which it impacts those who see it is either impossible to assess, or has unpredictable consequences.
The Turner Prize can be political without having to show explicitly ‘political’ art. When I served as a juror in 2017, the upper age limit of 50 for the prize was finally scrapped. It was an unfair rule that did not acknowledge the different speeds at which artists lives and careers evolve. Getting rid of it made a structural difference to the Turner, allowing us to nominate two older artists we thought deserved to be shortlisted. I should stress that the four of us on the jury were not the first people to have the conversation of ageism with the Tate, and the rule decision was ultimately made by the museum, not by us. But I was proud to be involved with the prize the year that the age eligibility changed. Not only that, I was happy to help shortlist a Turner Prize exhibition that was to be shown in Hull, a city geographically and socially distant from London’s museums and gallery scene. This year’s shortlist was announced just one week after a major report was published about the problems of class and accessibility in the arts in Britain. It’s a reminder that there are many other structural changes that could be made in society, and that for artists and the institutions that exhibit them, being politically engaged isn’t just about showing pictures of other people’s socio-political problems. (I know, I know – that begs the question: which pictures and whose problems?)
All prizes involve small ‘p’ and big ‘P’ politics. They begin with the individuals doing the judging and being judged, and expand through the institutional framework in which those individuals and the prize mechanism operates (the art world’s large managerial class of curators, administrators, directors, fundraisers, advisors and assorted technocrats). Factors of geography, economics, race, age, gender, sexuality, education and class all shape prizes, just as much as large geopolitical currents that pull us one way or the other – whether those are part of an artist’s subject matter or not.
Curator Lisa LeFeuvre, one of this year’s Turner Prize jurors, is correct when she observes that ‘all art resides in the realm of the political.’ Yet this makes the term ‘political art’ frustratingly large. It encompasses so much as to be near useless. In her new book Unexceptional Politics (2018) Emily Apter writes about the ‘impolitic.’ The word ‘impolitic’ sounds like a prim admonition of bad manners at a dinner party, but Apter defines it as a form of micro-political strategy. She writes: ‘It refers to the political uses, on both the right and the left, of insolence, impertinence, discourtesy, truculence, tactlessness, and intractability, as well as a particular skill in the art of timing the political.’ How much political art is ‘impolitic’? I don’t know the answer to that question, but artists and the galleries or institutions that they work with generally have to maintain some sort of cordiality with each other in order to function, for better or for worse. The idea of an artist being impolitic reminds me of the quip that institutional critique is like complaining when someone throws you a party.
We are living in the era of retro politics. Just as pop culture enjoys mining the past for new looks and sounds, it feels as if right now many of the major problems in 20th century history have come back into fashion all at once. Nationalism, war, protectionism, economic volatility, the mass displacement of populations, the threat of nuclear conflict, civil rights, identity politics, fascism, revolutions in communications, Russia vs. the USA, upheavals in South America, tensions in Asia and the Middle East. Under these circumstances, the 2018 Turner Prize is no more or less ‘political’ than any other year, and we’ll find ourselves back in this conversation next year, the year after that, and for years to come.
Main image: Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture, A reconstruction of the altercation of search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean on 6 November 2017, 2018. Courtesy: Forensic Architecture