British Contemporary Art (Foundation. December 2007)

Since it began in 1984, what kinds of art has the Turner Prize rewarded? Discuss in relation to 2 artists.

Since it began in 1984, the Turner Prize has attracted controversy. While those involved claim the Prize does not actively seek controversy, there is no doubt that this brings publicity, leading to a wider public awareness and debate of contemporary art. This wider awareness and varied debate has been particularly conspicuous since Channel 4 took over sponsorship of the Prize in 1991, and the Turner Prize is now considered a newsworthy event.

This essay is intended as an attempt to identify what kind of art the Turner Prize has rewarded since its creation, through an examination of the work of two artists. The difficulty of this is illustrated by Adrian Searle, who observed ‘the current contenders are dealing with issues so divergent, and working in such utterly different ways, as to make a nonsense of comparative judgements. Do you prefer bananas or Ford Fiestas, the Cairngorms or Persil?’ (Button 2007).

I have chosen to examine Richard Long (born Bristol 1945) and Rachel Whiteread (born London 1963). The two artists both won the Prize on either side of the 1990 hiatus, so I can examine the similarities and differences between the two periods, when the criteria for awarding the Prize were adjusted. Both artists were also nominated in years prior to winning, so I feel they will be more representative of the kind of art rewarded than winners who had not previously been nominated. In addition, Richard Long was a nominee for the very first Turner Prize and is therefore representative of the kind of art considered worthy of the prize at the beginning of its history.

I will be looking for similarities and differences between the work of the two artists and the artists themselves in order to draw my conclusions, with particular interest in the similarities. This exploration will necessarily be somewhat narrow and artificial due to the parameters set by the essay question, as I will not be seriously attempting to examine the Prize as a whole, nor will I be looking in any depth at other artists.

Firstly, in examining what kind of art is rewarded by the Turner Prize, one should consider the words of Tate Director Nicholas Serota, speaking to the press in 2002: ‘[the Turner Prize] wasn’t intended as an objective survey of all artists across all fields saying, “This is the best”’(Button 2007). In 1987, it was decided to alter the wording of part of the Prize criteria from ‘greatest contribution’ to ‘outstanding contribution’, as the former would imply that the winner was the greatest -the best- living British artist, or that the rightful winner should automatically be an artist widely considered to be so. Also, the winner may be a compromise choice by the judges, as the process is one of negotiation and bargaining as much as agreement and appreciation. Thus, the art that wins the Turner Prize is not necessarily the ‘best’ –even within its own field (e.g. sculpture, painting, video installation)- nor even the preferred choice for individual members of the judging panel. Cairngorms and Persil comparisons continue to apply.

Secondly, in relation to Richard Long and Rachel Whiteread, we can see that the Prize is sometimes awarded to artists and work that bend or break the acceptable criteria for consideration. When Richard Long won in 1989, it was in spite of a 1987 rule change that meant that no artist who made the shortlist for two years was eligible for the Prize in the following two years: he had been nominated in 1987 and 1988. Of course, this could have been a simple oversight. In 1993, when Rachel Whiteread won, it was in a great part due to her monumental sculpture House, even though it technically fell outside of the eligible twelve month period: the judges felt they could not ignore the equally monumental public and media interest in it (it was even discussed in Parliament).

Some have argued that the Turner Prize represents not so much British art as a whole (and in 1989 the criteria were widened to recognise the importance of foreign artists working in Britain), but the monopoly on contemporary art held by a small group of dealers managing a small group of artists drawn from the major London art schools: Richard Long was at St. Martin’s School of Art and Design (along with Gilbert and George, also Turner Prize-winners), and Rachel Whiteread studied sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art. When Jake and Dinos Chapman said, “It’s called the Turner Prize because everyone gets a turn” they may well have been referring to this relatively small pool of artists, as opposed to the wider community of contemporary artists in Britain today. It may or may not be worthy of note that the Chapman brothers have yet to take their turn.

Rachel Campbell-Johnston says ‘[the Turner Prize] can’t turn up four fresh talents a year. The shortlist feels less like a surprise than an orderly queue’ (Campbell-Johnston 2007), and it is true that both the artists I am examining had been previously nominated before winning, Richard Long in 1984, 1987, and 1987, and Rachel Whiteread in 1991. While Campbell-Johnston may criticise the Prize in this way, it suggests a consistency in the type of art the judges choose to reward, even though it does not help us identify that type.

Red Walk (1986) by Richard Long

Both Richard Long and Rachel Whiteread produce art that owes a debt to the wider fields of Minimalism and conceptual art. Much of their work is simple -even austere- in appearance and often consists of something that isn’t there, where the idea is at least as important, if not more so, than the object produced. In Rachel Whiteread’s case, her casts are frequently of the negative space around an object rather than the object itself: Ghost (1990) and House (1993) are casts of interior space, rather than the solid exterior framing shape. Some of Richard Long’s works no longer have any physical existence except as a record (see Red Walk, above, and also A Cloudless Walk, 1996) because the real artwork is the walk itself.

Of course, Minimalism and conceptual art are not readily grasped or appreciated by everyone, and their intellectualism and seeming impenetrability keep on provoking the question “But is it art?” by which many people seem to imply that it can’t be if it’s not a traditional painting or sculpture. Indeed, traditional art practice can seem to be very much unrewarded by the Turner Prize, provoking protests by groups such as the Stuckists and the K Foundation (who awarded Rachel Whiteread a worst artist prize the same day she won the Turner, claiming to have taken some kind of public vote… and getting the same shortlist and final result as that of the Turner Prize itself). Rachel Whiteread’s House (pictured below) did not please the erstwhile occupant of the original, who thought that it was not art and was little different to

what he used to do at the seaside as a child making sandcastles, though Christ Oates –with responsibility for demolishing it- found he grew to appreciate it, thinking it ‘ingenious’. While not provoking such strong, polarised reactions, Richard Long’s work might be difficult for some to see as art, due to the radical notion that going for a walk could be as valid an artwork as a painting, sculpture or photograph.

It is easy for the contemporary observer, who does not necessarily have much or any knowledge of art history, to see the work of artists such as Richard Long and Rachel Whiteread as strange products of the modern day, but in both can be seen long lines of artistic tradition. Virginia Button sees echoes of Cycladic art in Whiteread’s work, putting her at the modern end of a tradition approximately five thousand years old! Similarly, with Richard Long’s land art we can see elements that would have resonance with the creators of such massive artefacts as the pictograms at Nazca in Peru, or the Glastonbury zodiac. As Rachel Campbell-Johnston puts it: ‘Richard Long’s squiggly walk gives a post-modern twist to traditions that date back to prehistoric cave paintings’ (Campbell-Johnston 2007).

White Water Line (1990) by Richard Long

A little closer to us today, Rachel Whiteread’s work has antecedents in Bruce Nauman’s 1965-8 cast Space Under My Steel Chair, as well as the ideas of the Surrealists and Dadaists, while the ‘radical’ Richard Long is part of ‘a particularly English romantic tradition that can be traced to Constable and Wordsworth’ (Button 2007).

The work of both artists is deceptively simple in appearance, particularly in the case of Richard Long’s physical artworks, for example, his 1984 Turner nominee show pieces, Chalkline and River Avon Mud Circle, or White Pebble Circle (shown below, left) from his 1987 nominee exhibition.

While the artefacts Rachel Whiteread produces are more complex in appearance, the objects they are based on are so ordinary and everyday as to be almost invisible: we are so used to our bathtubs or our mattresses that we do not give them much thought until we see them in a shocking new light, as in her 1991 nominee exhibition, when she displayed Ether and Amber Bed (above, right). It is possibly this deceptive simplicity as well as the perceived ‘reticence [of the artists] to explain what the work is about’ (Button 2007) that leads to some people regarding the art of the Turner Prize as being without meaning, or having had much thought or effort put into it. This perception might explain the existence of the Turnip Prize, started in 1999, in which the entrants must spend as little time as possible on their artworks, even though it also seems to be poking fun at the perceived intellectualism and pretentiousness of the Turner Prize.

The Turner Prize is widely regarded as rewarding younger, newer and more innovative artists. Nicholas Serota said in 2002 that it ‘was established as a prize that would bring to the fore younger artists and artists working in new ways’ (Button 2007), but it could also be seen as a reward for a longer career. Obviously, Rachel Whiteread was at a much earlier stage in her career relative to Richard Long when she won, and so fits the first part of the statement, but had been nominated prior to winning. Richard Long, in contrast, had been working for about twenty years and had been nominated three times before winning. Some regarded his eventual victory as overdue at the time, and it was as a consequence of his multiple nominations that the rules for the Prize were changed to avoid any repeat of the situation.

As made clear at the beginning of the essay, the parameters set by the question were unlikely to lead to a definitive answer. Despite these strictures, I feel that I have been able to identify a number of common factors in what kind of art the Turner Prize has rewarded. While it has been baldly stated that the Turner Prize does not reward the ‘best’ or the ‘greatest’, it is also clear that it is willing to bend or break its own rules in order to make the ‘right’ decision. Both artists won with work displaying characteristics of Minimalism and conceptual art, but these modern ideas were based on traditions going back through recent art history and into a past where archaeology is the more obviously associated field of study. Deceptively simple, their work (especially that of Rachel Whiteread) has been part of the continuing debate on the position of contemporary art in the public domain and partly responsible for the tongue-in-cheek response of the organisers of the Turnip Prize: it and they are no longer the exclusive property of the ‘highbrow’, nor is a dissenting or derogatory opinion the exclusive property of the K Foundation. While both came from two of London’s top art schools, this does not necessarily mean that the Turner Prize is only there to honour a small elite, although many see it that way. There seems to be some consistency in the kind of art rewarded, even if we are no clearer on what kind that is, as both winners had been nominated in previous years. In the case of Richard Long, it would seem that the Turner Prize is also sometimes used to reward a longer artistic career, and many people have seen Mark Wallinger taking the prize this year (2007) in a similar vein, as he had been nominated back in 1995 and, at 48, would soon be too old to be eligible. With this is mind, if the Chapmans stick with it, they may get their turn some time before 2012.


Button, Virginia (2007) The Turner Prize, Tate.

Campbell-Johnston, Rachel (2 October 2007) “A Turner for the worse” The Times, Times2.

Higgins, Charlotte (8 September 2007) “Who’s Shocking Now?” The Guardian Weekend.

Roberts, Alison (12 January 1994) “Best and worst of art bites the dust” The Times.


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