Heard of Yomi Ṣode? No, me neither, well at least not until yesterday when he popped up on a Radio 4 programme as I drove home through the cold and the spray of a crow black late afternoon, startled by headlights and looking forward to nothing more ambitious than a warm house and grateful cat, neither of which were delivered. Sadly little Yomi did not add a great deal to my journey either, offering only third rate, clumsy lines and half rhymes; shame because he was under the impression he was investigating “the dynamic cultures that surround contemporary poetry”. He also apparently wanted to convey the idea that “finding a voice can be both thrilling and painful” (I suggest Strepsils for that, Yomi). Fortunately for me I only caught the last seven minutes of a programme that could have been the longest and most pretentious half hour of my life. Because that’s pretty much the only thing that a young ‘contemporary’ artist can offer – pretention on a breath-taking scale.
And this is what a lot of today’s art actually offers us: non-art. Non-anything. Nothing. An empty, faded crisp packet by the side of a busy motorway – an unloved shadow of what it was and a reminder that even in its prime it was still just a bag of crisps and not, for instance, a comment on post-industrial decline in pre-dictatorial Chile. Yomi Ṣode may have sounded like a nice chap but as soon as he started to put his art into context and explained either end of where it exists and considered the space it needed and then asked other equally self-absorbed, inevitably struggling poets how they felt, then my world yawned open and I slid into a cultural coma from which I feared only death alone could release me. Even that sounds pretentious; it must be rubbing off. There is a reason why so few poets make any money from their pen and also a reason why so few artists exist much beyond the bread line. Poems are just words (occasionally well ordered words) and if you have to spend more time explaining them than writing them then there is a very good chance that it’s because they’re not very good to start with.
This is a comment on ‘art’ in general and as if to force home my point The Turner Prize, which is already a meaningless enough award as it is, came lumbering round the corner to show us what artistic pretention really means. It would need a mission to a time before dinosaurs roamed the earth to find the last occasion anyone worthwhile entered something decent for the Turner Prize – actually I would hazard a guess at 2003 with the Chapman brothers; they didn’t win and I doubt they cared. As others have noted, it is virtually impossible to award a prize for the ‘best’ piece of artwork anyway. Same goes for a book, album, design and, I dare say, poem. There is no problem with saying what your favourite is but just don’t paperclip a gift token to it. Perhaps this is even more relevant because traditionally only ‘artwork’ can be given a value greater than its material worth. A book or song or poem can never be truly worth more than it is, it can simply be treasured by some more than others. But a painting or sculpture, by virtue of being a one off can now demand millions; millions usual coughed up by tech entrepreneurs or sheikhs with low intelligence and high interest bank accounts. Artists should remember that often they’ll make the most money from the most stupid.
What itches the deepest about this year’s Turner prize is how transparently self-serving it is and yet also coated in a thick, viscous, smudgy veneer of faux sincerity. The four nominees basically clubbed together and suggested they all win, thus splitting the £40,000 prize money and getting a bit more of their smug, fat faces in the news. Gallingly they have achieved this by saying they wanted to make a “collective statement” at a time when there was “already so much that divides and isolates people and communities”. If you don’t think that stinks like a fisherman’s glove then look away now. Is it not painfully obvious that Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Tai Shani and Oscar Murillo were more likely to have realised that their collected artwork was all equally rubbish and rather than risk a 75% chance of failure they instead opted to take 25% of the cash? Is this not the same rough principle by which the murderers on The Orient Express got away with it?
The sad thing is that deep down I can see why they did it. This could be their one shot at greatness, their opportunity for real exposure, their chance to make an actual living from their art, so why not give it a go? But please, oh please sweet, merciful void, why did they have to make up such an appalling cover story? Even Prince Andrew could come up with better.
• “Murillo’s congregation of human effigies staring at a black curtain covering a window overlooking the sea” (read – paper mache in the hands of a 6 year old);
• “”audio investigator” Abu Hamdan’s sound effects, recreating the noise inside a notorious Syrian prison” (read – making some noises that sound a bit like some noises that other people have made somewhere else, in misery);
• “Shani’s brightly-coloured feminist fantasy world “beyond patriarchal limits”” (read – confused, painful, red bunch of nothingness, and that’s just the dress she’s wearing);
• And “Cammock’s film commemorating the role of women at the start of the Northern Irish Troubles in the late 1960s” (read – other people’s sombre, grainy footage merged together and passed off as one’s own observational achievement).
They hardly sound like a good afternoon out so they had to cover it up with a letter to the judges, saying they all made art “about social and political issues and contexts we believe are of great importance and urgency”. They added, rather conveniently, that “the politics we deal with differ greatly, and for us it would feel problematic if they were pitted against each other, with the implication that one was more important, significant or more worthy of attention than the others.” How very fucking handy. Of course the chair of judges, Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson (a name as appropriate to this story as it is ridiculous) loved every word of it and lapped them up like a cat with kidney disease; drooling unctuously: “it is very much in the spirit of these artists’ work to challenge convention, to resist polarised world views, and to champion other voices. The jury all felt that this made the collective a worthy winner of the Turner Prize.”
And there you have it. The state of contemporary art in Britain, and no doubt elsewhere – artistic pretention knows no geographical boundary. My fear is that even worse will come and that next year the nominees and judges will all just drop their pants, bend over, form a circle and proceed to bloke smoke up the next persons’ arse, thus creating a living, breathing, conceptual piece of post-modern, inter dependant sycophancy. It could be called something like ‘you justify my existence and I’ll justify yours’ and anyone stupid enough to buy tickets could be given a bucket on entry and then the vomit that inevitably fills those buckets could be splashed on the walls to represent the continuing struggle, probably ‘within a context’, of the most silly prize for the most silly art you’ll find anywhere on the planet. I write because I like writing. It isn’t art, not even low art; it’s only words, just like lots of other words. But at least I don’t need to explain them and I’m OK whether you enjoy them or not. If I did this for the money I’d have to ask a poet for a loan. And if I won a prize I certainly wouldn’t want to share it with some other tosser who can also write words. Art, shmart.
G B Hewitt. 4.12.2019
All “quotes” courtesy of our dear beloved BBC.