‘Nothing To Do with the Genius of Turner’

A slow news day has netted in Mr Gove’s latest contribution to British public life; his confident assertion that the Turner Prize has ‘nothing to do with the genius of Turner.’

Now, I’m no fan of what Mr Gove has previously termed Art which ‘celebrates ugliness, nihilism and narcissism’, but only because it’s easier to knock up a powerful negative image than create a positive uplifting one. As much as I admire the terrible vision Bacon, I infinitely prefer the utopian images which Bonnard conjured up from nostalgia and memory. Suburban, bourgeois, comfortable – but there you are, my taste is as valid as yours.


Hurst’s macabre vision. Not for me, but only because it’s easier to shock than delight. A lesson I learned in my career in advertising, and that personal, subjective judgement has nothing to do with the merit of his work. 

But personal taste is no measure of merit, and it seems nonsensical to me to dismiss an established and respected Art competition with what amounts to a half baked comparison between Marten , Turner, Holman Hunt and – of  all people – Ruskin.

One can’t really compare Picasso with Titian, they both painted wonderfully, innovated and used paint but that’s about it, and in the same vein is it reasonable or desirable to compare Turner prize winners with the great artists of the past?

Interestingly , a friend passed on a catalogue of Turner prize winners to me last week, and just through the lens of a decade of so it’s amazing how quickly what was once avant grade has become  – almost – establishment.  It’s harder now to see Hurst, Doig, Kapor and Offili as the cutting edge, but they were, and as Greyson Perry memorably observed, ‘everything was contemporary once’.


Art moves on, what was once new very quickly becomes routine. How can we spot what will be regarded as great art in 500 years time? I don’t know, but replicating what was new isn’t the answer… 

The difficulty here I suspect for Mr Gove – and most of us – is how to identify what will become the ‘good’ art of the future. One of his heroes Ruskin, famously got it wrong when he railed against the (then revolutionary) works of Whistler.

Now I don’t always get it, and I for the record I can’t love anything quite so devoid as aesthetic beauty as Marten’s assemblages, but I can understand why they are good and compartmentalise my taste from their merit.

The answer of course  is to rely on the judgement of people who have totally immersed themselves in the world of contemporary art to the point where they can make sound, comparative judgements about the merit of various nominees. There must be a word for them , let’s call them for the purposes of this blog ‘experts’.

Hang on , we don’t do experts any more, because the ‘experts’ were THE PROBLEM which we’ve all so democratically and wisely marginalised with our Brexit vote and maybe a hatred of experts telling us what to do and think is Mr Gove’s issue.

‘Who are expert judges to tell us what’s good and what we should like?’, seems to be the strident cry from Mr Gove? If so this reading of the prize is facile, the Turner prize simply informs us which artists – in the opinions of experts – have the most merit; whether we like what they produce on an aesthetic level  or admire their intellectual rigour lies within our remit, as my feelings about the British Art Exhibition bear witness.

It seems to me – as no expert – that great Art is not some simple clever one liner – to paraphrase Will Gompertz, but about universal truths, enduring ideas and us. Marten’s works are thoughtful and full of depth and intellectual rigour, and they might endure if they speak forcefully about human truths half a millennium from now.

Time will tell us if our current art experts were right, but if we position Turner as an ambitious, driven, visionary artist willing to steal ruthlessly from the past to reimagine the future then it seems to me that the Turner Prize and its winners have everything to do with the great man.

sun setting over a lake, Tate

It’s about innovation, not respect for  tradition. What’s not to get Mr Gove? New ideas have to be taken on trust, but their enduring value is a longer game. 



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