[This article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]
By some quirk of Turner Prize programme schedules, my husband’s timetable and the need for something to be on in the background while I was cooking dinner, Monday evening started off with a documentary — a BBC2 programme called The Curse of Oil: The Pipeline, repeated from September, in which an earnest-sounding presenter worked his way along the route of a new 1,100 mile pipeline linking the Caspian Sea with the Mediterranean. It was, in some ways, an absolutely typical product of our times and mores. On the one hand there was lushly beautiful footage of green mountains shrouded in mist, galloping coal-black stallions, amber-golden corn standing ripe in the fields — and on the other hand there was that earnest voice-over. What the title didn’t spell out, the commentary hinted at, in such polite and measured language as to suggest that no civilised person could fail to understand its adumbrations of the nastiness of corporate culture, the sinister nature of anything involving the US military, and a generalised sense of inchoate yet sophisticated unease relating to pretty much everything, full stop.
Or if you can’t work out what I mean from that description, try recalling any documentary made either by Louis Theroux or by any of his many lesser imitators that you’ve ever idly watched while waiting for something else to begin. Or think of The X-Files, or programmes about President Kennedy’s assassination, the pharmaceutical industry, Mark Thatcher’s finances, or more or less anything else you like. It honestly doesn’t matter. So pandemic is this particular, flawlessly-impartial-yet-oh-so-damning tone, that we all know it well, even if by now it has become so familiar we hardly notice it at all. It is, to adopt a register too rarely invoked in the world of television criticism, the sound of the clerisy in full cry. Don’t trust anyone, the voice tells us — except, obviously, the nicely-brought-up, public school-educated, probably Oxbridge-burnished, immaculately liberal intelligence behind the making of every paranoid, definitely ‘edgy’, yet entirely establishment-accredited programme you see, all of which you should trust implicitly. On one hand, the lack of explicit criticism flatters us on the subject of our own independence of mind, while on the other, we’re left in no doubt where the disapproval of all orthodox liberal believers ought to fall. Well, at least the photography in The Curse of Oil was very beautiful. I was left thinking that I should like to go to Azerbaijan someday, once it calms down a bit.
It’s that prize again
And then came the Turner Prize. By now, I guess, everyone who cares will know the result, which was a barnstorming, bunker-busting victory by the bookies’ choice, the critics’ choice and pretty much everyone else’s choice, Jeremy Deller.
Conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong. Out of the nominees on offer, Deller was almost certainly the right choice to win. He has the face of the better class of Tolkein elf, with a good indie-band haircut, dandyish clothes and a manner so unexceptionably well-mannered and forbearing as to melt all opposition in its tracks. He’s a credit not only to his parents, but to Dulwich College, the Courtauld Institute of Art and Sussex University, where he studied yet more art history. He works happily with ex-striking miners, cyclists, Texans, Quakers, bats, the Manic Street Preachers and others in the execution of his collaborative projects. And the nature of his art? Well, we’re talking about the Turner Prize, after all. Deller doesn’t make things — he makes things happen. This will perhaps discredit him terminally in the eyes of many Social Affairs Unit readers. Yet it’s to his credit — or so it seems to me, anyway — that these ‘things’ he makes happen are occasionally not only relatively interesting, at least by the present-day art world’s abject standards, but also relatively funny, nostalgic, double-edged and — to use a word that Deller seems to favour almost as much as Maurice Cowling does — complicated. And at very least, he’s an improvement on the infinitely tiresome Grayson Perry, whose technically incompetent and morally questionable pottery will probably vanish from our collective memories faster than the ugly-sister frock in which he rose to the podium to collect his £20,000 cheque last year.
Lights, camera — fine art, apparently
For the canapé-munching clerisy present at Tate Britain on Monday night, there were, I imagine, two ‘safe’ remarks to make about this year’s Turner Prize. The first would have noted this year’s emphasis on video art. How poignant it was that the Prize should be awarded on a concluding night of I’m A Celebrity. Well, here comes a moment of genuine personal confession that will be recorded by no video camera. God, how I hate video art! For if there is, somewhere out there, a gene that allows people to watch video footage for more than ten seconds without achieving a catatonic or at least militantly bored-and-angry state, I suspect at some point my poor infant son will have to be in receipt of gene therapy relating to it, because he certainly won’t have inherited it from his old Mum. On a good day I can co-exist in the same room with, say, Late Night Review or an old Father Ted rerun — or, as we have seen, some random documentary made up of two-part-travelogue-one-part-paranoia — for more than five minutes running, but it helps if there’s washing up to do, laundry to be hung, and a friendly cat craving attention. The reason I became interested in art in the first place had a lot to do with liking paint and what can be done with it, and yet somehow I often end up in cavernous gallery spaces being expected to spend time watching films that would not manage to earn to three whole figures’ worth of revenue had they been screened in a commercial cinema. I can count on one hand the number of gallery-sited video works that have detained me for more than a minute. All of which means that this year’s Turner Prize was hardly rich pickings for me.
For the oddity, this year, was less the absence of painting — now, alas, just an unremarkable cliché of Turner Prize competitions, as much a part of the tradition as Matthew Collings’s anxious commentary or Tracey Emin’s cleavage — than it was the omnipresence, the virtual triumph of video art. To this end, all the four Turner-listed artists provided video-based offerings. From Deller there was Memory Bucket, a documentary about his time in Crawford and Waco, Texas. From Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell there came a remarkably boring film about an Afghan warlord’s trial, which was ultimately pulled, lest it prejudice an Old Bailey case. (I saw this when it was at the Imperial War Museum; you can read a rather dated, yet heartfelt review of the exhibition here.) From Kutlug Ataman there was perhaps the most unspeakably tedious bit of film ever shot, which — I am told by the press releases — has something to do with reincarnation, although its epic ineptitude may well have disguised this fact from most of its observers. And finally, there was Yinka Shonibare’s film, Masked Ball, based on Verdi’s opera about the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, but with more dance and groovier fabrics than you might expect — unless you’re familiar with Shonibare’s work, in which case fabric, and lots of it, is exactly what you’d expect. Well, if you don’t like actually looking at things, preferring instead to look at slightly aimless film of things, this was the Turner for you.
What any of it has to do with art, however, is another question entirely. For when is a film not a film? When the person making it is an artist, apparently – at which point only a philistine would judge the result by anything but art-world standards. It is a point to which we shall return presently.
The other stock theme aired by the art world’s great and good, there amongst the cocktails and canapés, was self-congratulation about what more than one serious critic has characterised as the ‘highly politicised content’ of this year’s Turner exhibition.
To which I can only say, don’t believe everything you read in what used to be the broadsheet papers. Obviously there must be punters out there who can still get themselves into a fine fit of anger over Gustav III’s assassination and its geopolitical implications for the world of 1792 — although sadly, perhaps, the merits or otherwise of Enlightened Despotism no longer occupy quite the central role in policy discourse they once did. And no, I don’t believe that the use of colourful imported fabrics, even when they are selected by a black artist, automatically comments meaningfully on race, imperialism or much else. While Shonibare’s work is pleasant enough, he’s a one-joke artist and his joke is very tame indeed.
Perhaps, though, the rest of the videos were sizzling with hot political content? Um, no, actually. When I saw the Langlands & Bell video at the Imperial War Museum, I was struck more than anything else by its completely persuasive air of total disengagement — its insistence that these people going through the motions of a jury trial were indeed far-away folk of whom we not only knew little, but could hope to know little. From watching their film, I derived no more information about whether Langlands & Bell thought the suspect was guilty or innocent than I did about whether they thought the American campaign against the Taliban was justified at all. But then detachment is what Langlands & Bell do. They are not even the Kraftwerk of the visual arts (the Kraftwerk of the visual arts is of course Gerhard Richter, but that’s a different essay) — they are the Gary Numan of the visual arts, obsessed with electronic gadgetry and a very dated form of ice-cold minimalism. And for his part, Turkish-born Kutlug Ataman was apparently once tortured in prison for his opinions, but that does not actually translate into making his boring, obscure, sloppy-looking film somehow intrinsically political. No, if there were politics evident in any of these works, they were simply the near-subliminal ones of the documentary genre mentioned earlier — a vague sense of distrust, a shimmering implication of doubt and blame that vanishes as soon as the viewer tries to pin it down, and yet leaves him feeling that the film-maker has somehow ‘dealt’ with race, or terrorism, or belief. The fact that anyone looks to films to ‘deal’ with such issues says volumes — whereas the films, sadly, say virtually nothing at all.
A fine romance
And as for Jeremy Deller, what are his politics? Can anyone be sure? Here, perhaps, I should declare an interest. Less than three yards away from me, above the sofa on which I am writing this, hangs Jeremy Deller’s History of the World — a graphic piece in which acid house music is schematically linked, inter alia, with brass bands. It’s the multiple that corresponds with the larger piece in Tate Britain. Why give this piece house-room? When I first saw it, I liked it for two reasons. The first reason was formal — I liked the way it looks. True, it’s about as far from traditional, representational art as it’s possible to get. It’s like random scribbles on a blackboard, like inspired lecture-notes, but with a brisk graphic flourish redolent of some of the gestural painting that interests me most. I liked its black-and-white toughness, its literal quality, its graphite greys and silver-white. In its hurry to get some sort of complicated yet urgent message across, it reminded me of the late seventeenth century cheap popular prints that will, I hope, someday face it. It’s not great art, but there’s something alive, funny, wistful and faintly self-deprecating about it. With a background in academic history, I like what it says about the way in which connections can persuade, but also surprise, please and amuse.
The politics of the History of the World, such as they are, remain opaque. So we return to the question — what are Deller’s politics? The answer is less than clear-cut. A few non-committal, softly liberal public pronouncements apart, in which it can be seen that he is ‘interested’ in ‘people’ etc., the politics apparent in Deller’s work itself seem to be pretty much anything the viewer wants them to be.
Although in theory Deller won the Turner Prize for Memory Bucket — and the myth that contenders are judged on single exhibitions, rather than life achievement, is a minor but persistent defect of this prize — far and away his most famous work is The English Civil War Part II, a filmed re-enactment of the so-called Battle of Orgreave Colliery, one of the nastier run-ins in the course of the 1984 Miners’ Strike. Deller compiled many hours of interviews with veterans of the Miners’ Strike (including police, miners and South Yorkshire residents), organised for a combination of ex-miners and Civil War re-enactment societies to take part, and collected documentation relevant to the whole event, which — backed up by ArtAngel funding — appeared first as a Channel 4 documentary. In the course of ‘making things happen’, Deller seems to have gained the confidence of the local mining community. He persuaded former miners to play the role of police officers; he persuaded sceptical working-class socialists that he was doing something other than aestheticising their life-changing experiences for the benefit of a middle-class metropolitan elite. And it seems to have worked. An online review on a Miners’ Advice website not only describes the film in some depth, but praises it from a pro-strike point of view. As a part of the documentation, the CD and book that followed on from the project contain a selection of songs redolent the Miners’ Strike. These are, needless to say, all protest songs, rather than the FCS songbook classics with which some Social Affairs Unit audiences, myself included, may be more familiar. And this is typical. The emphasis here is on a wryly nostalgic sympathy with the striking miners and their families, rather than on anything more analytical, hard-edged or — in the strong sense of the word — political. In other words, it’s just that pervasive documentary bias again — but done gently, almost incidentally, with more enthusiasm than guile.
And this, I guess, is the other reason why Deller’s work appeals to me. Heaven only knows what he thinks his art is about. For me, though, somewhere behind all the interviewing, the cataloguing, the pious gathering up of small actualities and the mildly eccentric sketching out of connections — and leaving aside for a minute that rhetoric of ‘making things happen’ — there is more than a hint of an older, place-specific romanticism, antiquarianism even, in Deller’s work. He seems to me the first cousin of the sort of person who collects obscure Cumbrian sheep-herding dialect terms or the folksongs of rural Sussex, Cockney children’s counting-rhymes or pre-reformation Lancashire burial customs. I’m surprised that more on the Left don’t intensely dislike The English Civil War Part II, if only because there’s a level on which it takes the sting out of some fairly raw wounds by slotting Orgreave prematurely into a mythic, distant, romanticised local history that’s the stuff of costumes, hobbyists and recreational Saturday afternoon outings. And if there was a surprise in his Memory Bucket, it was his ability to resist poking easy, Louis Thoreaux-type, liberal-left fun at small-town Texan social mores. This was, I think, not so much a matter of good manners, or of rigorous artistic decision-making, as of focus — Deller is here not to hammer home some easy point, but rather to wonder at a café-waitress’s world-view as innocently and honestly as he would wonder at the sheen on a bat’s wing. Deller is no Gilbert White of Selborne, but his amateur’s-eye-view of our world as a complicated web of relationships offers, to me at least, a vague hint of something similar – reframed, obviously, for the glib, superficial, faithless and throw-away times in which we live.
Loud goings-on in a cul-de-sac
So, then — by way of summary, there was too much video, and not much political content, but given the short-list, faut de meiux, probably the right man won. Is there anything else to say about this year’s Turner Prize, or can we safely ignore the whole subject until next October, when this particular art-world circus comes creaking, more threadbare and mangy than ever, back into town?
Well, yes. As the Turner Prize programme began and I sat watching a strangely subdued Matthew Collings, his new hairstyle making him look like Gary Bushell’s long-lost secret brother, attempting to goad his ‘shadow prize jury’ into cogency, I couldn’t help but stop and wonder about the relationship between ‘art’ — the kind of self-conscious, gallery-going, prize-winning art celebrated in events like this one — and the real world beyond it. What, for instance, was the difference between The Curse of Oil and Langland & Bell’s film about the Afghan trial, or Kutlug Ataman’s film about reincarnation, or Deller’s Memory Bucket? All were films that traded on exoticism, an awareness of difference and distance, mixed in with a little human curiosity about how other people live. To varying degrees they all partook of that detatched, rather arch and knowing tone that I mentioned earlier, and if Deller’s film was less guilty than most, one watched it against a background of expectations in which anticipation of that tone played a part. And how would it have been different if Yinka Shonibare had simply organised the costumes, choreography and setting for a production of Verdi’s Masked Ball, as hundreds have done before him, without trying to present this activity as being the work of a visual artist? Now that art — the kind of art that wins £30,000 prizes, anyway — isn’t painting or sculpture, but instead looks like normal things we find in the world all around us, how are we supposed to judge its quality? And by the same token, why should we treat it in the careful, thoughtful, slightly reverent way in which so many of us are used to treating art?
There are many possible answers to this — enough, in fact, to swell a short review into a longish monograph, complete with lots of head-banging stuff about the nature of modernism and so forth. Let’s spare you that. Actually, let’s spare all of us that. Not least, there’s no shortage of prose to read on the subject of the Turner Prize. At least since the death of the great Peter Fuller, probably the best and most sustained criticism of this two-decade-old institution and the sort of art it endorses has come from Stuckism International, on whose strangely designed yet oddly compelling website the reader who wants to pursue this further can read, inter alia, Charles Thomson’s trenchant comments about the pointlessness of this year’s video-centric offerings. The site also includes the text of David Lee’s intemperate, frank and wholly plausible expose of the people and institutions behind the whole dreary Turner Prize ritual. The intervention of a Labour junior minister into the obligatory Turner Prize ‘debate’ a couple of years ago generated this on a website I used to help run, in which my dissatisfaction with the sort of art that wins the Turner Prize is fairly clear.
For while I do rather like what Jeremy Deller does, and indeed feel no great animus against any of this year’s contenders — all, at the very least, a great improvement on Grayson Perry — still, it still seems strange and unfair to me that such a small, mannered and self-indulgent corner of the broader art world receives, ever year, such a lavish dose of cash, press coverage and genuine if bemused public attention. There are, needless to say, still plenty of people out there who still paint pictures or who make attractive objects, as well as a lively market in the traditional art of the more or less recent past. All over Britain, our larger and smaller commercial galleries are full of traditional, often representational work. Nor are degree shows as barren of recognisable figures and landscapes, or of evidence of the pursuit of technical skill, as some of our gloomier critics might suggest. Yet to find such art, we have to go out of our way to encounter it. In contrast, the Turner Prize is simply there each year, in our newspapers and on our televisions and claiming elbow-room for itself in the arena of public discourse. Conceptual, project-based and video-centred art may all be inhabitants of a tiny little cul-de-sac of the art world — but that is the cul-de-sac where all the noise and excitement and outrage is being generated, and so it’s the inhabitants there who gain our attention. Theirs is too often an art that can be described in terms of gimmicks, personalities, frocks. And to an extent it does little harm. Britain has long had a place in its heart for the artist-as-an-amiable-freak, all the way through from the greenery-yallery, Grosvenor Gallery, foot-in-the-grave young men of the 1890s to the Soho-haunting luncheon companions of Francis Bacon in the 1950s, to Lucian Freud and his super-model following, or David Hockney and his dachshunds, today. A little colour and controversy at the more demotic end of the art world is perhaps no bad thing. We are in danger, sometimes, of taking art too seriously.
Making things happen?
And yet in the end there was a detail that left a faintly nasty feeling in its wake. The Turner Prize programme was, as ever, interrupted by a profusion of advertisements. Most of this was froth, enlivened here and there with a glimpse of Nicole Kidman or George Clooney. Yet oddly, there was also a trailer for a future programme, directed by Sorious Samura. Samura is an African film-maker perhaps best known for his documentary Cry Freetown, about a rebel insurgency in Sierra Leone in January 1999. Here, by contrast, was an example of a documentary that was anything but disengaged. For one thing, Samura was risking his life by compiling the footage that he did. But he was also testing his own moral principles to the limit. To what extent is it all right to condone injustice in order to be allowed to gain the evidence that will show that same injustice to the world? Where does the role of the observer end, and the role of the moral actor start? Anyone who saw the film will remember, painfully, how tough these choices were, and how grave and terrible was the impact of Samura’s footage, which did in the end manage to raise the profile of Sierra Leone’s suffering and to point the way towards an improvement in the situation there. No, it wasn’t a happy film to watch, but it was an unforgettable and important one. For whatever else this was, it was a project drenched in conviction, explicit politics, and engagement with the real world — not just the real world of galleries and ‘making things happen’, either, but the world as all too many people know it all too much of the time.
The advertisement evoked Samura briefly — and then we were swept back to the bright lights, colourful cocktails and refulgent egos of Millbank. All hush! It was time for the winner of the prize to be announced! The excitement in that brilliant, bustling room was palpable. Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate and Chairman of the Turner Prize jury, took to the podium. The focal point of his remarks? Well, it had been a grim year for the art world. He made reference to the warehouse fire earlier this year in which much of Charles Saatchi’s collection of near-contemporary British art had been reduced to cinders and insurance claims. A look of solemn grief crossed his features as he intoned the following:
The response of some sections of the press, who saw this as a moment of catharsis or even celebration, was in some ways reminiscent of the response to the book burnings in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
To their credit, many those present at the dinner looked shocked at the epic crassness of this comment, which seemed to conflate a bit of bad press coverage with genocidal mass murder. Only a few applauded. But it’s at moments like this that it becomes a little bit harder to forgive sections of our our arts establishment their pomposity, their shallowness, their supreme and hideous self-importance. The portrait of the art world thrown up in that moment was anything but inspiring. If Turner Prize-style art wants to start making a public case for its own validity, even in its own terms, it’s going to have to do a bit better than that.