The Turner Prize Grows Up

Posted on June 29, 2017 by Guest Writer
Turner Prize has finally relaxed

In a former life, as we say, I was London correspondent for an art magazine published in Miami. It was aimed at art enthusiasts living in the area, which does attract more than its fair share of the USA’s leading art collectors. None of these wealthy collectors were what you’d call ‘youngsters’.  Yet, at the time, which was the end of the Nineties, one of art’s most prominent prizes –The Turner Prize—prohibited artists over 50 from entering the competition.

A pointless rule

As art critic Jonathan Jones remarked in The Guardian in November 2016, “In the 1990s, the age limit on Turner prize nominees dovetailed with a young, punk energy in British art, but now it’s a pointless and conservative rule.” It is a rule that also alienated many older people from appreciating the Turner prize, because it was seen as pandering to an idea of ‘art’ that is about as far from the paintings of JMW Turner as you can find. Critics tended to fall into the “My child could do better” attitude to modern art, and to be fair, it isn’t just a few older people who think like this, all age groups can be quite negative about installation art, as just one example of what the Turner judges like.

Ironically, some of the artists who have won or were nominated for the Turner prize are now too old to enter. I’m thinking of Gary Hume and Jake and Dinos Chapman. Personally, I love the Chapman brothers’ work “Insult to Injury” which was nominated for the 2003 prize eventually won by Grayson Perry. It is somewhat absurd to believe that these artists and any others over 50 have nothing to contribute to the art scene, although in defence of the Turner age ruling, it was introduced in 1991 to prevent big names like Lucien Freud or David Hockney winning every year. However, I agree with Jonathan Jones when he said, “What worked in 1991 does not work now.” His reason for this statement is this: “By excluding mature artists, the Turner has become slight and often boring – because it is not a prize for the very best artists around, just a showcase for some interesting younger artists whose work may or may not stand the test of time.”

A change of rules in 2017

In March 2017, the Turner prize rules suddenly changed to allow artists of any age to enter, “an acknowledgement that people are never too old to ‘experience a breakthrough in their work’.” Anish Kapoor, one of Britain’s leading artists, is delighted by the decision. He won the prize in 1991 when he was 37, but his latest work continues to excite and, since he is well over 50, it would be a shame if he wasn’t a nominee just on the basis of his age. His view is: “We have had a long, long, long obsession with youth in the art world and I think it is good to recognise that it often takes a lifetime to really have the work recognised, to be an artist.”

Phyllida Barlow working at 72

He is right about the obsession with youth in the art world. I know it is not the only ‘industry’ that puts youth front and centre, but in the case of art it has an unwelcome effect of creating a general perception that the only art worth discussing is made by younger generations. It is true that the Turner prize is not intended to be a lifetime achievement award and has tended to champion emerging artists, but we can’t ignore the fact that at the age of 72, Phyllida Barlow is considered “one of the most exciting British artists working today.”

Her story is interesting because 10 years ago, when she was already in her 60s, no gallery would exhibit her work and she wasn’t selling. This year she is representing the UK at the Venice Biennale, the most prestigious contemporary art event in the world. Barlow taught at the Slade School of Art and was even the tutor to some Turner prize winners, such as Rachel Whiteread and Martin Creed. Now she can enter in her own right.

Is this a sea change moment for 50+ people?

There have been some other changes to the Turner prize rules: judging will now also include works produced for the Turner prize exhibition, whereas previously it was only based on a nominated work. But, the most important change from everybody’s perspective is that of breaking the age barrier. You may think that it will have no impact on your life, whether you like art or not, but I see it as a positive shift that will ultimately make the work of anyone who is 50+ have a new validity, and I don’t just mean ‘art work’.