The 2016 Turner Prize and the Monotony of Controversy

It’s Turner Prize time again, and the four finalists for 2016 have been named: Michael Dean, Anthea Hamilton, Helen Marten, and Josephine Pryde. Anthea Hamilton’s “butt wall” has been dubbed quite controversial, and looking through the prize’s history, so many articles have been written about the weirdest, most outrageous, or most controversial art pieces of the Turner Prize history. The point always boils down to: “Is that really art?” And it’s not an illegitimate question or topic to bring up; it’s an important source of discussion, but in the grand scheme of art… screw it. It doesn’t matter. But let’s take a look at why we shouldn’t get hung up on if Anthea’s or any artist’s work is controversial or not.

image002
Anthea Hamilton. Lichen! Libidio! Chastity! at the SculptureCenter.

People need to make more art and society needs to support it in every way possible. Those who engage in the arts are more likely to join civic activities and volunteer, and a background in art stimulates creativity in all professional sectors, and the kind of art doesn’t play a significant role. So … so what if a piece is grotesque? Controversy should be encouraged because people need to be shaken in order to critically think about their opinions; it’s fine if it’s overrated; and to a degree, deskilling doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of conceptual talent. Somebody wanted to express themselves, great, let’s see more of it, and let’s not get hung up on our personal feelings. We’re going to be offended by things in life, that’s part of living; what personally bothers one person or even a group is not an issue for greater humanity. As for the Turner Prize, these articles about controversy are boring and trite, and more importantly, they’re useless. Of course there is controversy, that’s often a fundamental point of inspiration for contemporary art. Here’s the thing though, the barometer for what can be labelled as “controversial” is so arbitrary that it really doesn’t matter. Everything is controversial once it’s touted as something worthy of note.

image004
Banksy. Cave Painting. Originally on Leake Street in London, England. May 2008, painted over August 2008.

In 2009, Jonathan Jones, one of the judges for the Turner Prize at the time, wrote an ego-masturbatory article about his love for education and because of that, he claimed Banksy and street art wasn’t art. A point that could definitely be argued, but his article offered no substantial argument and only a weak and rather superficial one claiming that Banksy’s not hot anymore, and also an extremely faulty argument stating that street art celebrates ignorance and aggression. Ironically, many would argue that it is educational and positive merely by its ability to reach so many people, offering art to those perhaps unable to visit galleries or museums or those unaware of their interest in art, and by its ability to create a sense of community.  It serves to highlight how much the Turner Prize is predominantly made out of random, personal opinion and how vastly opinions can differ on one artist and one style, just like the work of the 1993 Turner Prize winner, Rachel Whiteread, being called both “extraordinarily imaginative” and “meritless gigantism”. In reality, who was Jones to say that Banksy’s art wasn’t worthy of the Turner Prize? They’ve put pretty crappy paintings made of feces up on display before, and who am I to make this distinction of someone’s elephant poo art? But that’s the thing, both artworks are illegitimate in somebody’s eyes, but they’ve been made and presented, so there’s controversy, and why isn’t that art? So, why don’t we stop discussing the most controversial pieces and just start talking about the artwork itself.

Let’s go a step further; let’s stop trying to officially decide what is and what isn’t art. Put into practice, how about we just let people into art school rather than forcing them to become despots. Hitler, in all his infamous glory, is obviously the most famous failed artist. One little boy from Austria was denied his paints and easels at the Vienna Academy of Art, and he changed the course of history through a grandiose dislike of many people – let’s give blacks, homosexuals, Sinti Roma, and the handicapped some credit for a change. Hitler wasn’t a half bad painter either, just kind of mediocre and mundane, but throw in some arbitrary opinions and a person or an institutional panel deciding when to bring down the gavel down on someone’s passion and you see what happens. Hitler, though … he gets too much credit; I’m more interested in another dictator with failed creative aspirations: Kim Jong Il.

Adolph Hitler. Watercolour.
Adolph Hitler. Watercolour.

Once cultural minister, Kim’s love for film has been seeping into the edges of public knowledge. Rumour has it, he kidnapped a South Korean director and his wife to make numerous films, most famously the bastard version of Godzilla, Pulgasari. Let it be noted, it’s a fabulous B movie. Kim loved film, it was his true passion, and although he got to dabble, his semi-monastic, dictatorial duties hindered his ability to fulfil his dreams. And so it would seem that the continuation and strengthening of gulags, starvation, and general blackout censorship is partially the result of forcing your first-born son to follow in the family trade.

image007
“Hey fellas, want to make a film?”

The Turner Prize is a great entity, an important one because it pushes the arts into open dialogue, supports artists, and brings a spotlight to art in general. It doesn’t matter if the art is banal, controversial, beautiful, or confusing. But where one should take umbrage is when this beacon of goodness for the arts chooses to wantonly disparage the arts of some despite it being, unofficially, the platform for controversy over “legitimate art” and supposedly touting alternative ideas and perceptions. This level of hypocrisy and lack of self-recognition for the fact that it’s really just another opinion is far more concerning for art than “Piss Christ” (it’s exactly what it sounds like) or “Myra”.

Andres Serrano. Piss Christ. 1987. Photograph of crucifix submerged in artist’s urine. 114.9 by 83.2 cm.
Andres Serrano. Piss Christ. 1987. Photograph of crucifix submerged in artist’s urine. 114.9 by 83.2 cm.

By Alice Bauer

Cover picture: Damien Hirst. Mother and Child Divided. 1993. Glass, painted steel, silicone, acrylic, monofilament, stainless steel, calf and formaldehyde solution. One part (calf): 102.9 x 168.9 x 62.5 cm.