Every year, a committee selected by the Tate chooses four finalists, whose work is exhibited before a winner is announced at a gala ceremony. Previous laureates include some of the best-known figures in contemporary British art, among them Anish Kapoor, Chris Ofili, Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread. The prize was designed as a visual arts equivalent to Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize in literature, and some years, it has functioned like that, identifying major figures with an ongoing impact on contemporary art.
But other years, the prize has been more noteworthy for controversy than prescience. This year, there is controversy again, with the announcement Tuesday that all four finalists had been awarded the prize jointly. And to make things even more interesting, that decision came after the finalists — Oscar Murillo, Tai Shani, Helen Cammock and Lawrence Abu Hamdan — petitioned the jury to award the prize collectively.
The artists explained their request this way: “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,” they wrote in their statement to the jury.
This was unprecedented, and renewed a conversation about the relevance of cultural prizes in general and whether the decision was a concession to the supposed “snowflake” tendencies in contemporary culture. Is it, critics suggested, a sign that everyone is or should be a winner? Or is it a devolution of the Turner into a “participation award,” as one writer asked on Twitter?
The artists’ appeal, and the jury’s willingness to grant it, says a lot about the kind of art these particular artists make, which is political, documentary, socially engaged and deeply intertwined with activism. This wasn’t just about refusing the idea that one of them take home the 25,000 pound first prize while the other three received the 5,000 pound finalist awards. Rather, it was about giving one social concern priority over the others. Abu Hamdan, for example, focused on the plight of civil war and a notorious prison in Syria, while Cammock looked at women in Northern Ireland during “the Troubles” of the late 1960s. How does one choose which of these is the more important issue?
Supporters of the decision were grateful for a cultural moment that forced people to consider the inherently corrupting nature of awards. The arts, they argue, should not be a horse race. And in a world in which fame is increasingly a winner-take-all phenomenon, here was an event that worked against the tendency of awards to exacerbate inequality.
But there was a deeper anxiety at work, too. Art is forever worried about its exposed flank: its perceived irrelevance when compared with "bigger" issues. The anxiety afflicts our philanthropy, in which people with money question (with good reason) whether their dollars would be better spent on such things as education, heath care and the environment. There are sound answers to this nagging question, but they require one to think in larger terms, longer time frames and more intangible effects.
By asking to receive the award collectively, the artists effectively asked that the award recognize the social needs addressed by their work, not the work itself. And that is an effective way to deflect the persistent fear that art is a game played by educated virtuosos for the amusement of the moneyed classes.
Anyone who has ever judged a competition knows that in some years, no finalist clearly stands out, which can mean either that there is an embarrassment of riches or a field of mediocrity. Either could have been the case this year. But in other years, the decision is obvious, and it is thrilling when everyone in the room is unanimous in their enthusiasm for the best candidate.
Turner Prize officials say that this year’s decision isn’t meant as a precedent. Next year it may be back to recognizing one superior talent. Or not.
I hope they do struggle to find a single winner next year, though I don’t care much whether they succeed or not. What matters is the effort, which helps to define essential questions, including the most basic: What is art? That is the defining existential question for art today, the question that, by being diligently pursued if not answered, becomes a catalyst for renewal and vibrancy.
There are also artists who will come before the jury who aren’t directly engaged with social issues, at least not as activists or documentarians, and their work deserves full consideration. It may be, in some years, that the “uselessness” of art is the very thing that deserves to be recognized, the thing that embodies its potential to change us.
Finally, there is the idea of “healthy competition,” which has mostly been leached out of our social life, out of sports and cultural events and, especially, out of democracy itself. But it is an idea worth embracing, because it helps us imagine competition without the insidious categories of “Winner” and “Loser.” It captures the dynamic and emulative power of competition in the here and now without branding anyone in perpetuity as worthy of perpetual victory or deprivation. Awards should open doors, not set you up for life. It’s the difference between opportunity and privilege.