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The Turner Prize: Is it Relevant?

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The Stuckists are never happy. They used to be upset that the Turner Prize did not involve enough painting and "traditional" media, now they're unhappy that the prize is seemingly "irrelevant". On Monday night they were out in force, mocked up "Wanted" posters of Tate Director Nicholas Serota were thrust into our hands as we navigated our way into the building past the prettily twinkling (they were wearing fairy lights) protesters.

Every article about the Turner Prize this year boiled down to the same question, is it really relevant anymore? It's fair to say that the art is less "shocking." There were no tributes to the loneliness of promiscuity or piles of elephant dung. But does that make it less relevant? The press seems to think so. The headlines attributed to this year's prize were scathing in their banality: "Shock and Yawn" or even more straightforwardly "Turner Prize is Getting Boring." The general feeling is that if the prize has ceased to be controversial, what really is the point?

Of course the media likes to whip up its own frenzy and since we're all quite used to pickled sharks, video installations and elephant dung the press can no longer ask; "is it art?" so the question becomes "is it good art?" The Turner Prize is one of those few times in the year when the art world seeps into the real world and everyone has a say (or a bet) on who or what is good. In the UK we have the obligatory spot on the Ten O'Clock News with an amused reporter wandering around Tate Britain amongst the nominated works speaking with the curator and a few choice members of the public -- there's always at least one who trashes it.

This year's entries consisted of two film makers; Runa Islam and Mark Leckey and two sculptural/installation artists; Goshka Macuga and Cathy Wilkes. It definitely was not shock art but perhaps it was difficult for the uninitiated. Macuga's work relies on knowledge of art world in-jokes. Wilkes might also fulfill the press's dream of an "is it art?" installation with her assemblages of mannequins and seemingly unrelated objects. Whereas the pieces by Runa Islam and this year's winner Mark Leckey's are more accessible. The former works quite traditionally with film and light and the later uses images from popular culture.

An anonymously written blog post from Saatchi's online gallery sums up the media attitude far better than the articles that have names put to them. Anonymous meditates on an old Art History tome "Twentieth Century Painters," a book published in the 1950s. It relates a history of European painting that is quite different from anything taught at schools and universities. Anonymous lists scores of artists that even those with Post-Graduate degrees in the subject might not be familiar with. His point is that contemporary art audiences are frequently incapable of identifying the greatest works of their own generation. That artists considered exemplars of the early 21st Century movement may end up as obscure notes in the history books of the future.

He/she has a point; I cannot honestly say that Mark Leckey's work will be used as benchmark for future generations of students. I cannot even really say it about Damien Hirst. But for those of us who enjoy contemporary art, I wouldn't suggest that predicting who the next Picasso is up there with one of our biggest kicks. Of course, we're interested in the future life of works -- museums would not bother to collect if we weren't. But the real enjoyment of art comes from many sources: emotive, educational, enlightening and sometimes yes, financial. The Turner Prize isn't just about preserving genius for posterity but about celebrating those artists we think mean something right now. All the better for them if they mean something in fifty years time.

The short list might not have been as provocative as in previous years but one suspects that this is rather the point. The critics and talking heads need to get over it. It was thirteen years ago that Damien Hirst won the prize and nearly a decade since Tracey Emin was nominated. It is in art's nature to rail against what has gone before and The Turner Prize has just grown up. This is a different generation of artists. Not especially younger in years but they're on the other side of the Young British Artist (YBA) phenomenon. To try to make contemporary art a constant source of public provocation would be fruitless and the talking heads are just trying to grasp at a story. Of course we all like a good media mud slinging but it seems to me that the popular press' attitude to the Turner Prize is more far more out-dated than the thing itself.