Turner-ing it around?

So, the Turner prize is heading north of the border. Often deemed the most important and prestigious visual art award in Europe, this year the event will be held in Glasgow, at Tramway. A postindustrial space, in a postindustrial city, almost as far away from London and the capital’s Tate supremacy as possible; the Turner Prize is clearly trying to counter accusations it has gone soft in old age and reclaim the edgy controversy of its youth. The question is, can it? Or will this year’s award further prove the heyday of the YBAs is long gone?

At the time of the Turner Prize’s birth, Glasgow was truly edgy. Edgy as in knife-crime-and-syringes-edgy, rather than exposed-brickwork-artisan-coffee-shop-edgy. The Thatcher years saw urban decay on a grand scale, with violence not far behind. New youth gangs sprang up which were widely believed to be more dangerous than the Glasgow razor gangs of the 20s and 30s (super EDGY). By 1984 George Orwell’s surveillance culture may not have been fully apparent, but neither were many other forms of culture – dystopia was not far off. The majority of Glaswegians were craving stability, let alone a resurgence.

Meanwhile, down south, the Tate Gallery’s Patrons of New Art were courting controversy. From the choice of 19th century painter and national treasure (and now Mike Leigh movie star), J. M. W. Turner, to name the new prize for contemporary artists, to the mysterious anonymous sponsor, to the first winner himself, Malcolm Morley, the Prize caused criticism. Morley was unpopular – he didn’t even return to the UK from his Stateside residence to collect the prize – and the conceptual idea was fuzzy. Was the winner ‘the greatest’ living contributor to British art, or simply an ‘outstanding’ figure? Were the other nominees failures? Was competition good for the art world? Was the art any good anyway? The Turner Prize had definite teething problems.

However, the late 80s saw a blossoming period, that led to a full on bloom in the early 90s. Having narrowly avoided bankruptcy, in 1991 the media love affair with the Turner began, as Channel 4 jumped in as the new sponsor. The prize money doubled to £20,000 and business and art became bosom buddies. As the moneybags got larger, the nominees got younger, as the age limit of 50 was introduced (in 1991 three of the artists were under thirty). Suddenly, the Turner Prize, unlike the eponymous painter, was hip, sexy and fresh. Many of today’s big names of the art world were made in this period, as Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley were named as winners. Critics railed against many of the shortlists, as video art, multi-media and abstract pieces were lauded (the 1997 winner, Gillian Wearing, showed a video entitled 60 minutes of Silence, which, while showcasing actors dressed as police, pretty much did exactly what it sais on the tin). The Turner Prize seemed all too keen to provoke cries of ‘that’s not art!’, if that also provoked column inches of publicity. Craving attention and pushing against the establishment, the Prize was in its teenage years and living it up. It even had an inappropriately drunken night, when Tracey Emin infamously walked out of a live Channel 4 discussion programme.

But there’s one unchanging thing about ‘cool’ – it changes fast. It was no different for Cool Britannia, as the controversial shortlists, media brawls and big bucks began to lose their shine. The controversy was predictable, and so were the artists, as many began to argue that certain London art dealers were really pulling the strings behind the scenes (cough, Charles Saatchi). Quickly, the cool factor was lost to the alternative Turners, from the ‘Anti-Turner Prize’ of £40,000 for the ‘worst artist in Britain’ (in 1993 Rachel Whiteread won both prizes), to the Turnip Prize, whose judging criteria include “Lack of effort” and “Is it shit?”

So, in an attempt to save itself, the award fled. First testing the waters in a jaunt to Liverpool in 2007 – northwards but still in the family at Tate Liverpool – then to Gateshead and Derry in 2011 and 2013 respectively. And now to Glasgow. The idea is clear and double fold: bring the glitz and glamour of the Turner Prize to a city in need of cultural regeneration, while at the same time avoiding accusations of London-centric, Saatchi-sponsored shortlists. Smart move, right?

Except, here’s the thing. Glasgow isn’t the cut throat, decaying city it looked likely to become 30 years ago. The revitalisation of Liverpool can maybe be linked to Turner juices flooding the city, as it supported the city in its bid to become the European Capital of Culture the following year. But with Glasgow, rather than being the push factor, the Turner is turning up late. Glasgow was the European Capital of Culture in 1990, six years into the Turner’s lifetime and only five years into the Capital of Culture programme. Glasgow was the first city in the United Kingdom to receive the designation. It followed Athens, Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris, and no one seems to be claiming those cities are in need of revitalising.

Before being host to the Turner, Glasgow has hosted ten Turner nominees as students at the Glasgow School of Art, four of whom went on to win the £25,000 award. Since 1996 seven winning artists have had Scottish links. As London rapidly becomes the sole domain of the super-rich and the YBAs dodge taxes, Glasgow increasingly feels like the natural, permanent home of a progressive, innovative young art scene – but perhaps this is more likely to be found at Glasgow International next April than at this autumns Turner Prize. Watch this space.


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