Because the Turner Prize shortlist is a cultural barometer of our political times

<span classe=Shortlisted artist Barbara Walker’s work explores issues of racial identity and interrogates Britain’s past. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London, CC BY-NC” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTQzMA–/ f112089c4c1c” data-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTQzMA–/ f112089c4c1c “/>

The UK’s biggest prize for contemporary art is back. The 2023 Turner Prize shortlist has been announced featuring British artists Jesse Darling, Rory Pilgrim, Ghislaine Leung and Barbara Walker.

An exhibition of the artists’ work will be on display at Towner Eastbourne from 28 September to 14 April 2024 with the winner being announced on 5 December.

An award given for an outstanding presentation of an individual artist’s work is not just an opportunity to pick favourites, but an opportunity to discuss the issues it explores, the people involved, funders, formats and contexts.

My research often focuses on how art and politics have intersected in recent decades. With a whirlwind 40-year socio-political history, this lens can be applied to the award.

From Thatcher’s 80s to Channel 4’s 90s

The Turner Prize was born in 1984 against the backdrop of Thatcherism. An annual contest to attract media and private sponsor interest made sense in the context of shrinking public funding for the arts and an era of competitive individualism.

A civil affair that pitted established painters and sculptors against each other and conceptual artists: the top six winners were white men, as were 28 of the 32 shortlisted artists.

That changed in 1991 with Channel 4 as the trendy new sponsor and a ban on performers over 50. The award would have sparked interest in a barely young and increasingly fashionable area of ​​British culture.

The 1990s awards are remembered for Young British Art. Art school graduates in the Thatcher era, Young British Artists (YBAs) were well aware of the limited opportunities to build state-funded careers, so they acted like entrepreneurs and self-promotion experts.

They staged their own exhibitions in empty warehouses, made “shocking” art with unconventional materials (sharks, dung, unmade beds) and sensational subject matter (pornography, violence, tabloid scandal). The feigned outrage of the tabloid press turned the artists into household names (Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin).

Much of it sounded Thatcherite, but there was something youthful and hip and edgy about the art that jarred with the warm beer and cricket pitches of the neoliberalism favored by the early 1990s Conservatives. He was much more comfortable in New Labour’s Creative Britain.

This was still a nation of entrepreneurial individuals with no interest in 1970s things like collective bargaining or common ownership of public utilities. But creative Britain was modern and hip: it was Britpop, football and contemporary art.

Channel 4’s under-50s television version of the celebrity-strewn Turner award was part of this, stoking the good vibes of the 1990s, fueled by PR and buoyed by a debt-driven boom.

The third way of 2000

New Labor soon gave up on looking fashionable – remember the introduction of tuition fees, deregulated markets and the invasion of Iraq. Some of the tax revenue from a seemingly buoyant economy has been spent on the arts, which have recently been redefined as consumer services and required to demonstrate value and efficiency using metrics.

Increased spending on public arts has provided artists with a kind of freedom. No longer required to stir up controversy or appeal to collectors like Saatchi, Turner Prize-winning art has become more artistically isolated with abstract paintings and installations such as light bulbs turning on and off.

Sometimes it was political. Mark Wallinger, the 2007 winner, has meticulously replicated Brian Haw’s peace camp, where the activist had lived for 10 years in Parliament Square, at Tate Britain.

Entitled State Britain, it was created when Tony Blair passed legislation to make it illegal to protest within a mile of Parliament. Positioned along the perimeter of the no-protest zone one mile from Parliament, it probed a line between art and politics.

The 2008 financial crash and a new perspective

In 2008, credit-fueled capitalism championed by Blair and Thatcher crashed the global economy and the Turner Prize failed to find a corporate sponsor.

The coalition government formed in 2010 cut funding for the arts by a third. The art shortlisted for the Turner Prize from that period didn’t say much about austerity or the moment, instead it closely resembled art from the early 2000s.

For historians Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams, the period after the 1990s was characterized by a feeling of stasis related to the widespread acceptance that neoliberal capitalism was here to stay. What Thatcher demanded, Blair accepted. It has become difficult to imagine alternatives.

But the art prize was changing like Britain. Collectives, community, and a gentle critique of the traditional Turner award format have become important.

Anti-austerity movements have found a home alongside trade unions in a reinvented Labor Party under the radically social democratic leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. The Black Lives movement pointed to a history, culture, and economy of institutionalized racism.

The 2015 winners, Assemble, weren’t artists at all, but a collective of architects who worked with communities to create imaginative housing, buildings, and resources.

The artists selected in 2019 asked to share the prize, using “the opportunity… to make a statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity” and transforming themselves into a collective.

The 2021 shortlist consisted only of collectives, many of which worked with communities in ways that seemed more educational or outreach than what some people call art.

The award has also become more aware of its past limitations, biases and oversights. Lubaina Himid, 62, was named the winner in 2017, after the Turner award age limit was dropped. In 2022, it was Veronica Ryan, 66. Ingrid Pollard, 69, was also shortlisted in 2022.

All three had been active since the 1980s, creating works that confronted, often in a playful and poetic way, colonialism, racism and identity. None of them figured in the lists of the 80s, 90s or 2000s.

The artists selected for 2023 share a preoccupation with the experience of hostile, exhausting, and strangely fragile systems: the late-capitalist pretension to be constantly productive while continually undervalued, the absurd cruelty of bureaucratic rule, and the precariousness of climates and bodies.

Much of their art is about striving to stay afloat or even just make it. By implication, the work conveys something about the inability of institutions to deliver grassroots support or transformative change. Instead, hope is found in a politics of community and caring, vulnerability and interconnectedness, offering occasional glimpses of better worlds.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Benedict Burbridge does not work for, consult with, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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