I had almost forgotten about the Turner Prize, one of the art world’s longest running and most boring bad jokes. You remember the Turner Prize: it’s Britain’s tired adolescent effort to show that the avant garde is not dead, it just has nothing to do with art. Begun in 1984, the TP is 30 this year. After featuring such exercises in repellent aesthetic nullity as Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” and Damien Hirst’s bisected shark in formaldehyde, what’s left? We’re still at the short list stage, but this description from The Guardian of James Richard’s film Rosebud provides all the excuse you need to give the preposterous exhibition a miss:
Someone is picking wild flowers. Isn’t that nice? Now the flower is being used as a tickling stick. Very amusing. Wait, isn’t that actually a foreskin? Yes, it’s definitely a foreskin. This is Rosebud, a sensual black-and-white film by Turner prize nominee James Richards that interweaves images of aroused flesh and censorship. Provocative photographs with rude bits scratched out are intercut with footage showing the erotic use of flowers. In one sequence, a flower tickles an anus, which reacts by clenching shut.
A sphincter clenching shut. That about sums up the Turner Prize, named for the great 19th century British painter but whose every fiber is a betrayal of the visual glory that Turner celebrated.
What makes the Turner Prize pathetic as well as noxious is its banality, its utter predictability. The Prize pretends to be daring, challenging, transgressive, original. But the only thing it successfully transgresses is our patience. As for originality, its penchant for scatological eroticism was fully exploited by Dada a century ago. Indeed, Marcel Duchamp mapped out both large domains of the pseudo-avant garde that supplies the anemic lifeblood of public relations stunts like the Turner Prize. When Duchamp took objects from everyday life — a bottle rack, a snow shovel — and impishly exhibited them as works of art, he pioneered the entire genre of art-as-banality. When he exhibited a urinal as a sculpture he twitted the more delicate sensibilities of an earlier age with exactly the same sort of naughty schoolboy outrage that Tracey Emin’s sordid exhibitionism recycled lo these many years later.
The Turner Prize is an example not of the art world’s daring but its rancid exhaustion. There is a vibrant life of visual art in Britain, as there is in America. But it has nothing to do with expensive cynical exploits like the Turner Prize or Tate Modern.