What is wrong with the Turner Prize?

This year’s winner is both earnest and superficial — it’s time for the judges to re-engage with art that is truly impassioned
‘It for Others’ (2013) by Duncan Campbell

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Art is a language. It allows you to have a conversation that cannot be had any other way.” These words were spoken to me a few years ago by a Lebanese collector as we stood in her dining-room gazing at a black rubber map of Beirut by Marwan Rechmaoui. Entitled “Beirut Caoutchouc”, its contours seemed less engraved than charred on to the city’s flesh. Taut, immediate and painfully expressive, the sculpture testified to the horror of a civil war that ripped Beirut to shreds and killed the collector’s own father.

Rechmaoui’s piece was a sumptuous example of art that has its roots in politics yet is never strangled by them. There are plenty of others: Goya’s “The Third of May”, Picasso’s “Guernica”, Mark Wallinger’s “State Britain”, which recreated the anti-war protest of peace campaigner Brian Haw on Parliament Square, Anselm Kiefer’s testaments to Germany’s descent into psychosis.

What all these artists know is that intensity is all. The tragedy to which you are bearing witness may be of epic proportions but your audience is more likely to feel the tremors if you work in miniature. Great art is metonymic; a small thing stands for the whole. They also know that while art may draw on politics, sociology, history, theatre and a panoply of other disciplines, it has to transcend them. As Rechmaoui’s collector observed, it should make you feel that its truth could not be expressed through any other medium.

No one told any of this to Duncan Campbell, or to the judges of this year’s Turner Prize. Campbell’s winning film, It for Others, is essentially a Marxist critique of global culture. Put like that, its length of 54 minutes sounds too brief. That I lost the will to live around the seven-minute mark is indicative of the fact that it manages to be both suffocatingly earnest and infuriatingly superficial.

Campbell whips us through a smorgasbord of wicked doings that starts with colonial representations of African identity and ends, inevitably, with the big, bad art market. En route we are treated to a sideswipe at British Museum director Neil MacGregor for refusing to give back his museum’s treasures, a Michael Clark ballet inspired by equations in Das Kapital, extracts from what may or may not be Campbell’s own diary, a lament about consumerism starring Warhol’s soup tin, a conversation between poets illustrated by Parisian postcards, an essay on the IRA’s lost opportunity to become champions of the working-class and a glimpse of Chinese textile workers.

At times, the imagery almost vanquishes Campbell’s efforts to strip it of its emotional content. Clark’s choreography is a tour-de-force of human algebra. The photograph of handsome IRA terrorist Joseph McCann holding his gun aloft whispers of a terrible Yeatsian beauty. But Campbell has no faith in his material and rushes on with his intertextual games. There is no time to reflect, connect, consider the ideas.

Or perhaps he doesn’t really care. “Is it possible to take [the work’s] anti-commercial self-representations at face value?” he asks languidly towards the end. “You mean we sat through that for nothing?” I mentally hissed in reply.

What is he trying to achieve here? Should we dissolve in a puddle of imperialist guilt? March for a minimum wage? Barricade Starbucks? Whatever his intention, I predict spectators will come out longing not for revolution but to cheer themselves up with a cappuccino and a trip to the Tate shop.

It’s likely that Campbell’s work beat the other contenders — Tris Vonna Michell, Ciara Phillips and James Richards — because its anti-capitalist rhetoric struck a chord with judges who, like the rest of us, know that something is rotten in the state of contemporary art. When Jeff Koons’ vacuous toys make him the world’s most expensive living artist, institutions are sucking up funds from banks that have behaved despicably and billion-dollar museums are being built by workers whose labour conditions are profoundly troubling, it’s clear the culture industry needs a kick up the backside.

The Turner Prize, which is awarded to the best exhibition by a British-based artist under 50 in a UK gallery, garners more media attention than any contemporary art event save the Frieze fair. (This situation alone tells you just how skewed the art world’s values have become.) It is a marvellous opportunity to illuminate artists who are genuinely challenging the status quo. Yet the last winner who fulfilled this brief was Mark Wallinger for “State Britain” in 2007.

Since then too many artists, both winners and shortlisted, have been rewarded for work whose knowing, self-indulgent flabbiness seems to curl its lip at any spectator longing to be moved rather than perplexed, angered rather than irritated, enlightened rather than tortured by ennui. Of this year’s shortlist, only Vonna-Michell twitched the imagination. Told through voiceover and slide projection, his attempt to make sense of his parents’ memories of postwar Berlin captured the intimate, fragmentary, human frustrations that afflict memory and narrative even as it replicated them.

Of late, the prize has been dominated by the Glasgow School of Art — three of this year’s shortlist, Campbell, Vonna-Michell and Phillips, are alumni. Surely the judges should widen their horizons? The school’s signature, one of chill, dispassionate analysis, is not without merit but is there no other approach worthy of consideration in British art? What about a painter such as Simon Ling, whose cityscapes — on view at Tate’s contemporary British painters’ show last year — sing out with lush, unstable cleverness?

The most frustrating aspect of this year’s winner is that his topic is deserving of truly impassioned treatment. If the Turner’s judges cast their net a little wider, they might find an artist capable of giving it one.

Photograph: Duncan Campbell/Rodeo Gallery

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