Picture the scene. Strings of tattered bunting, the concrete shaft of a half-built pillar. At the centre of it all a pile of red and black folders, supplanted by a pair of flagpoles bearing faded Union Jacks. A length of striped tape lies beside them on the floor like the shed integument of a snake, and everywhere you look you see road barriers, twisted, contorted, lopsided. If it weren’t for the fact that the setting of the scene is Towner Eastbourne art gallery, you’d think a car had crashed through it. And you probably wouldn’t blame the driver.
This isn’t the aftermath of a riot or the contents of a disorganised storage room. In fact it is Jesse Darling’s winning submission for the 2023 Turner Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious art awards. The prize was established to honour the ‘innovative and controversial’ works of J.M.W. Turner, although in the thirty-nine years since its inauguration, none of the winning submissions have evoked the sublime beauty of Turner’s paintings.
There are no facts when it comes to art, only opinions. The judges, who lauded the exhibition for ‘unsettl[ing] perceived notions of labour, class, Britishness and power’, seem to have glimpsed something profound beyond the shallow display of metal and tape. Or they may simply have considered it the least worst submission in a shortlist which included some accomplished but otherwise unremarkable charcoal sketches, an oratorio about the COVID-19 pandemic and a few pipes.
It may be that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. But there is a distinction to be made between works of art whose beauty is universally accepted, and those which fail to find acclaim beyond a small demographic of urban, middle-class bohemians. According to a YouGov poll, an unsurprising 97% of the British public consider the Mona Lisa to be a work of art. That figure drops to 78% for Picasso’s Guernica, 41% for Jackson Pollock’s Number 5, and just 12% for Tracey Emin’s My Bed. That 12% of society, however, represents those among us most likely to work in art galleries and institutions, and to hold the most latitudinarian definition of ‘art’.
For ordinary people, the chief criterion for art is, and always has been, beauty. But like the other humanities, the 20th century saw the art world succumb to the nebulous web of ‘discourse’, with a corresponding shift away from aesthetic merits and towards political ends. Pieces like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain – an upturned porcelain urinal – proved that works of art could shoot to fame precisely on account of their capacity to disturb and agitate audiences. As philosopher Roger Scruton described it, ‘According to many critics writing today a work of art justifies itself by announcing itself as a visitor from the future. The value of art is a shock value.’ The fact that shock, fear and revulsion create more powerful reactions than the sense of joy, calm or awe one feels when looking at a Rosetti or a Caravaggio is an unfortunate fact of human nature, and remains as true today as it did a hundred years ago. In much the same way that a news stories about declining global poverty rates or deaths from malaria will receive less attention than stories about melting ice caps or rising CO2 emissions, a truly beautiful artwork will receive less attention in the media than something which irks, irritates and offends.
In the opening chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray, when Basil Hallward reveals the eponymous portrait to his friend Lord Henry, he confesses to feeling reservations about exhibiting the work despite it being, in Henry’s estimation, his masterpiece. ‘There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about,’ Lord Henry reprimands him, ‘and that is not being talked about.’ The sentiment is triply true in the age of social media. Indeed, the term ‘ragebait’ started appearing online in the months following Mark Leckey’s winning submission for the Turner Prize in 2008, an exhibition which featured a glow-in-the-dark stick figure and a naked mannequin on a toilet. Like Dorian Gray, the more the art world thirsts for attention, the more hideous the art itself will become.
The quickest route to attention is politics. At the award ceremony for this year’s Turner Prize, Darling pulled from his pocket a Palestinian flag, ‘Because there’s a genocide going on and I wanted to say something about it on the BBC.’ In his acceptance speech, he lambasted the late Margaret Thatcher for ‘pav[ing] the way for the greatest trick the Tories ever played, which is to convince working people in Britain that studying, self expression and what the broadsheet supplements describe as “culture” is only for certain people in Britain from certain socio-economic backgrounds. I just want to say don’t buy in, it’s for everyone’. The irony is that all the money in the world wouldn’t fix the problems currently afflicting the art scene. If the custodians of modern art want to democratise their vocation, and make culture available to ordinary people, they should follow the example of Turner – and produce something worth looking at.