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The ‘po-faced preachiness’ of the Turner.


BRITAIN’S CULTURAL ELITES seem fully determined to drive themselves into oblivion. Just a few months ago thespian luvvies, in order to fix the climate emergency, chopped off the sponsorship they were receiving from the evil capitalist oil barons. Now the arty-farties and writers have come up with the beezer jape of having competitions that neuter the very idea of competitiveness. Behold the enlightened era of the collective winners!

The Booker Prize was awarded to Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo, thus inevitably relegating the less well-known Evaristo to second place as A. N. Other in the reporting media, as happened with the BBC. Evaristo, the first black woman to win the prize (or should that be co-win, half-win?) was understandably miffed. Although having to say “the first black woman” in itself indicates the quivering ground of political sensitivities on which we are treading.

Then came the Turner Prize, always an easy target for the detractors of “modern” art, ie, anything produced after the 1890s, but increasingly a project in which the participants paint a metaphorical, huge backside on themselves with the words, “kick me” written on it.

This year has been easier than previous ones. The four shortlisted artists, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Tai Shani and Oscar Murillo, decided to share the prize equally. They prepared a joint statement which explained their decision:

At this time of political crisis in Britain and much of the world, when there is already so much that divides and isolates people and communities, we feel strongly motivated to use the occasion of the prize to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity — in art as in society.

And just in case the stultifingly cliched and portentously uncreative language failed to bludgeon the message home, Shani wore a necklace declaring, “Tories Out,” to make it as plain as possible.

As for Shani’s work: “Dark Continent draws upon a host of references, tropes and characters from disparate sources, creating an elaborate world, outside of time and beyond patriarchal limits.” Oh heavens, the damn patriarchy again. There’s no escaping it. And feminism and otherness. It’s a lefty lecturer’s paradise.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan works with human rights organisations and his contribution, using sounds, “addresses silence as both a form of violence and evidence. Within a pitch-dark space, survivor testimonies are interspersed with re-enacted whispers.” He talks of relevance, leakage, porosity. Unfortunately what I experience is the leakage of any pleasure from listening to this.

Helen Cammock, like Tai Shani, does her part for the wimmin, thinking deep thoughts about power and such like. Her film, The Long Note, explores “the history and role of women in the civil rights movement in Derry Londonderry in 1968, a period generally acknowledged to be the starting point of the Troubles.” Which strikes me as belonging more to a module on Social History (as delivered by our aforesaid trendy lefty lecturer) than to an art gallery, but that’s just me being reactionary.

And finally Oscar Murillo. His stuffed dummies remind me of installations by Jeff Nuttall and various others back in the 1960s when happenings were all the avant-garde rage. His paintings also look interchangeable with thousands of others done in the last fifty years — ie, attractive but unexceptional.

This is what the effeminated, soy-fuelled culture has come to. A generation of artists who see themselves as political activists, assigned the task of saving the world from patriarchy, capitalism and climate catastrophe. Their work is characterised by a derivativeness that is not enhanced by excitement or nuance. It’s mediocre.

One of the saving graces of the utter nuttiness of so much art from the 1960s and 1970s was that it often had tremendous humour to it. The “happenings” and performance art events I remember, even when they were complete nonsense, had a verve to them, a sense of excitement and devil-may-care creativity to them that these offerings lack.

What you get these days is a po-faced preachiness packaged in a language of shallow intellectualism.

Even one of the high priests of modern art criticism has bridled at this. Waldemar Januszczak complains: “I don’t go to art to be lectured in jargonised evening-class-speak on the bad ways of the world.” OK, Waldy, but that’s the inevitable result of following the very politics you yourself espouse (“kill the corporations”, “bash” the patriarchy, etc).

The art world has painted itself into an ideological corner, much as Syd Barrett painted himself into a physical corner as he was going mad. And if they can’t cope with the hyper-capitalistic, individualising, binary ethos of choosing a winner then perhaps they should just bin every prize going and settle into the soothing swampiness of non-judgmental prizes for all. Then everyone can be in solidarity with each other while the rest of the world carries on ignoring them.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.

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