Turner Prize Artwork Is Generally Questionable, But Not For The Reason You Think

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Oh no, it’s Turner Prize time again. That is, time for the vast majority of people to cast their eyes to the sky and wonder how such work garners serious attention both inside and outside the art world.

I think the two main criticisms the naysayers level at Turner, however, are slightly wide of the mark.

The first is the “But is it art?” view. Many scoff at the bizarre installations or multimedia works because they are a far cry from “real art” – works by the Rembrandts, Michelangelos and maybe Van Goghs of this world. This modern crap is nothing like that! A good example would be Martin Creed’s 2001 Turner Prize winning Work No. 227: The lights going on and off. Yes, it’s simply a room where the lights go on and off at five second intervals.

The second is: “My six year old could have done that!” This time the problem is the low level of technical ability on show. Tracy Emin’s My Bed from the 1999 edition, which just recreated her bed in a messy state, isn’t just something six year olds can do, it is something they do do on a daily basis.

The first criticism is wrong. It is art. It’s symbolic constructs designed to produce a mental and emotional response in perceivers. End of story.

The second criticism is right. It’s undeniable that much contemporary art is easy to make by next to anyone. In fact, most contemporary artists wear that virtually as a badge of honour, as if doing something that takes genuine technical skill would be somehow shallow.

But neither critique asks the right question: is it creative? Because for the most part, it isn’t. Oh if only “conceptual art” actually demonstrated conceptual creativity on the part of the artist. The problem is not the questionable technical quality. It’s the questionable intellectual quality.

A creative idea, to use the US Patent Office’s definition, must be new and useful and non-obvious. Newness means a unique piece of information or a unique configuration of previously existing information. Non-obvious encompasses a sense of unexpectedness or surprise. It’s probably true to say that most contemporary art pieces are literally new, and some are non-obvious or surprising. Hence, Tracy Emin, defending the charge against My Bed that “anyone could have done that”, said: “Well, they didn't, did they? No one had ever done that before.” Probably true. But that doesn’t make it creative.

Because the third criterion is to do with value. Here we arrive at the murky world of social conformity. Who could doubt that if Emin’s piece was showed at a car boot sale or at a sixth form college art show or at a six-year-old’s art show for that matter, it would be rated as an insignificant piece of silliness? Pieces like Creed’s and Emin’s are elevated to the level of value arbitrarily, as if by divine fiat, by the powers that be in the art world. They possess few if any markers of their own ideational quality.

Imagine giving a blind test to even hardcore contemporary art aficionados – including professional art critics – on a range of contemporary art works. Which ones are the best? You’d get a pretty random set of responses. It’s actually the constructed reality of the physical space of an art gallery and the social space of in-group prestige that serves to elevate a given work of art as something worthy of attention, then admiration, and possibly monetary value. The point is that it can be a valuable emotional and psychological experience to view works of art in a gallery setting, but the works themselves are almost irrelevant and could be swapped for something “anyone could make” without negatively impacting that experience.

You doubt that? Well in 2001 the television show Faking It featured a painter and decorator who tried to pass himself off as a conceptual artist to art world insiders after a few days of prep. His art works tricked them completely. What he and Turner entrants demonstrate is that art in the modern age is indeed easy to achieve. Creativity, however, is not.