This week's New Yorker magazine features an article about the Turner Prize, "the world's best-known contemporary-art competition." The Turner Prize was launched in 1984 by the Tate Britain to reward young British artists, and has had controversial effects on both public perception of contemporary art--and the artists themselves.
The article is enjoyable and mostly focuses on the stress that the Prize competition puts on artists, but there were a couple of stand-out elements that flirted with 2.0.
First, the competition's structure. British artists under 50 can be nominated by, well, anyone (even you). A jury of experts shortlists four stand-out artists who are then in contention for the grand prize. Once they are shortlisted, each of the four is given exhibition space at the Tate. For eight weeks, their work is on view, and then the jury reconvenes to select the winner.
The exhibition of the art pre-decision exposes people to the art and creates buzz around the prize, and, more importantly, it brings museum visitors into the decision process. Nick Serota, the Tate's director, commented that "'the public display of four artists' work spurs people to reflect about art.'" The short-listed artists are frequently working in different disciplines with very different motivations. Seeing the exhibitions must inspire people to wonder how anyone--even art experts--could decide among them. How can you compare a painter to a sculpter to an installation artist? And when you feel skeptical of the benefits of expertise, you assume the shroud of the expert yourself. I can imagine people walking the halls of the Tate, passionately arguing for or against a given artist based on their own expertise--real or imagined. The judging of the competition doesn't have to be open to the public to get people involved; the mere fact that SOMEONE is judging it encourages everyone to do so.
Secondly, the Tate appears to take a populist attitude towards the Turner Prize. There's a video booth at the Prize exhibition in which people can register their thoughts, and the best of those commentors are invited to take place in a reality TV show, "The Turner Prize Challenge," in which contestants vie to explain the artists' work to the public. This is a video kiosk I can get behind--one with a (debatably) valuable goal. I imagine that the comments recorded in that booth were decidedly more thoughtful--or at least animated--than standard videos are because of the potential reward of Channel 4 airtime.
With the Turner Prize, it seems, everyone's a competitor. Artists agonize over whether the prize will help them or overexpose them to media. Visitors try to decide what's art, what's crap, and compete with each other for the chance to expound on the different on national TV. Bookies take bets on the final outcome of the competition. The final award ceremony is hosted by a major celebrity (Madonna, Yoko Ono, and Brian Eno among them).
There are two ways to look at the cult of celebrity around the Turner Prize. One can be hopeful and say that the Tate is reaching out to the public, packaging the complexities and absurdities of contemporary art in familiar, popular guises. Or, one could be cynical and say that the Tate is pandering to the celebrity-mad public, violating the sanctity of art for the American Idol generation. (Regardless of who is right, there's no question that the Turner Prize website, which explores many of these issues, is fabulous.)
I know that I would be more likely to engage with art and ask myself and my friends tough questions about what makes art good if I went to see an exhibition where I knew that the artists exhibiting were in competition with one another to be crowned as "best." As Serota said, "there's nothing sacrosanct about the status of any prize." And as another controversial modern figure once said, "If you aren't criticized, you may not be doing much."