Turning point

The announcement of the 2008 Turner Prize shortlist has prompted the usual carping. But let’s not fo

Do you remember how people used to hate modern art? I do. Because it wasn't very long ago. Actually, I can be more precise than that. People hated modern art until about 1991. Which was also the year that Channel 4 began broadcasting the Turner Prize. I know. I was there.

Last November, as the corks popped on Horseferry Road and Channel 4 celebrated 25 years of broadcasting, I had something to celebrate as well. Last year was the 30th anniversary of my becoming an art critic. My first review appeared in the Guardian on 1 April 1977. April Fool's Day. I mention it here not because I, too, want to have my back slapped - parties cloud your judgement - but because those 30 years of incessant art cri ticism qualify me perfectly to write about the impact of Channel 4 and the Turner Prize. I was around before either of them. I know what effect both of them have had. I remember vividly the situation before the two of them got together.

These days, of course, it's all so different. Not only do we take modern art in our stride, but we appear to have developed an unquenchable thirst for it. Queues of excited kidults wind their way around Tate Modern waiting for a go on the slides. Newspaper headlines blare out virtually every day how much this hedge-fundist has paid for that Damien Hirst. It's a favourite nat ional topic. Yes, the odd grumpelstiltskin from Somerset can still be heard at Turner Prize time posing that tedious annual question: Is it art? But no one takes that kind of complaint too seriously any more. It's part of the theatre of the Turner Prize. It's not serious. It's not vicious. It's not like it used to be.

In the old days, I kept a box in which I collected all the rude letters I received referring me to the story of the emperor's new clothes. I called it my Emperor Box. It's one of Hans Christian Andersen's most quoted offerings. A king gets conned into believing that he's wearing a beautiful suit of clothing when, actually, there's nothing there - he's naked. But the king believes the conmen because he doesn't want to appear a fool. The same goes for his queen, his court and everyone else in the land. Everyone except for a little boy, who comes along to the procession, sees immediately that the king is bollock-naked, and begins shouting it out.

So many readers of my articles in support of modern art felt the need to remind me of this story that my Emperor Box quickly overflowed, and I ended up chucking it away in about 1985. Had I kept up the collection, there would now be no room in my house for me. What amused me most about this correspondence was the way that everyone who wrote seemed to believe that only they were clever or truthful enough to make the comparison between Andersen's story and the modern art con. Their hero was the little boy, with whom they identified fiercely. And whenever they encountered modern art that they did not like, or did not understand, they began frantically casting themselves in his role and insisting that all the other inhabitants of the land were being fooled.

When the rude letters first started arriving, I used to write back dutifully to their senders, pointing out a crucial flaw in their thinking. In Andersen's fairy tale, the people who believed that the king was clothed made up the majority, and the little boy was the exception. In the case of modern art, it was the other way around. In England, in 1985, the vast majority of people seemed convinced that modern art was a con. The newspapers agreed and kept up an incessant attack on any and all new art. Remember the Tate Gallery bricks? Critics like me, who were trying to write supportively about it, and who didn't believe that anyone was trying to con anyone else, were branded fools and charlatans, too, and subjected to a nasty barrage of mockery.

As I look back now on those days, it is hard to believe how much has changed. Today, Tate Modern is nothing less than the most visited museum in the world. People love going there. And the Turner Prize exhibition is usually the best-attended show of the year at Tate Britain. What has been forgotten is how much smaller and more local an event it used to be before Channel 4 took it on.

Frankly, the early history of the Turner Prize is embarrassing. In the first few years after its inception in 1984, even I could have won, because it was open to anyone involved in art - critics, curators, museum directors, the lot. You didn't even need to be an artist. No one was sure what the rules were. Or who was eligible. And although a few pictures were sometimes displayed in the rotunda of the Tate, there was no proper exhibition of shortlisted artists for visitors to see or judge. The winners just seemed to emerge in that mysterious British way you also find with knighthoods, or membership applications to the Garrick.

All this changed when Channel 4 got involved. I was at the channel at the time, and vividly remember the debate with the Tate over what the prize should be. Clearly it had to be a prize for artists, but what sort of artist, and how many of them? In previous years, there had been short-lists of five, six, seven and even eight. It was Channel 4 which insisted that the shortlist be kept at the manageable number of four. And set a younger age limit so that the prize could become an encouragement for artists in the first half of their career, rather than a good-service gong slipped to them just before the end.

The other big change was the exhibition. The Tate, which had struggled hopelessly for so many years to attract audiences to its displays of modern art, was reluctant to give over any space to an annual display of shortlisted artists. It was afraid no one would come and that the galleries would remain empty. That was what it was used to. These days, the Turner Prize show can be relied upon to pull in up to 100,000 punters. Back in 1990, when Channel 4 first got involved, if you put up a sign outside a gallery saying "Modern Art Inside", everyone would have gone the other way.

As it happens, the first year of Channel 4's involvement was worryingly quiet. Having been reinvented from scratch, the prize was finding its way. So quiet was the reaction that I remember getting called in to a meeting with the director of programmes at Channel 4, John Willis, and being told that we should drop it and sponsor something at the British Film Institute instead. I disagreed, and was granted another go. Then came 1992. Everything changed. Damien Hirst was invited on to the shortlist for the first time, and through some potent chemical reaction caused by the fusion of his pushy personality with the rightness of the moment, everyone suddenly noticed what was going on at the Tate. From a story that was buried somewhere after the obituaries in the newspapers, the Turner Prize turned abruptly into a front-pager.

The following year - when Rachel White read's sad and iconic plaster cast of a Victorian house in the East End was included, and won - was even crazier. One moment no one was interested. The next moment the whole world seemed to be. Looking back now on this extra ordinary sea change in mood and pace, I can see, of course, that it wasn't the Turner Prize alone, or Channel 4's coverage of it, that was responsible. Various forces were at work here. A rare generation of talented artists, the YBAs, had emerged in unison, producing work that appeared to capture a new national optimism. And the revamped Turner Prize, with its younger rules, became a brilliant shop window for them.

After all those years of Margaret Thatcher and the regressive Britishness that she embodied, the country was sick of grumpelstiltskin-thinking. A change in aesthetics was as desirable as a new prime minister. All those designer lofts that began springing up in Docklands didn't need frilly paintings in frilly gold frames to decorate them, either. They needed art that was fresh, modern and of its time. Basically, Britain had finally learned to accept modernity. It had taken a century, but, finally, it had happened.

Without a pixel of doubt, it was the biggest cultural turnaround of my critical life. And although you can argue for ever about the exact ratio of responsibility for this change that should be allotted to the Turner Prize and to Channel 4, what is unarguable is that both of them were involved in it, up to their necks.

A version of this essay appears in "25 x 4: Channel 4 at 25", edited by Rosie Boycott and Meredith Etherington-Smith, published by Cultureshock Media (£25). Info: http://www.cultureshockmedia.co.uk

THIS YEAR’S NOMINEES

For the first time in ten years, women outnumber men on the Turner Prize shortlist. Bangladeshi-born Runa Islam is now based in London and works mainly in film. Her 2004 work Be the First to See What You See As You See It (still, below left) follows a woman wandering through a gallery filled with fine china, as she gently starts to tip the pieces surrounding her to the floor. Islam’s influences include Ingmar Bergman.

Goshka Macuga is a “cultural archaeologist”, and produces sculptural arrangements that often include work by other artists.

The Belfast-born, Glasgow-based sculptor Cathy Wilkes explores issues of femininity and sexuality. She often uses mannequins, as in Non-Verbal (left), which was exhibited at the 2005 Scotland and Venice Biennale.

Mark Leckey, the only male nominee, is the favourite to win. His exhibition “Industrial Light and Magic” combined disparate media and featured pop-cultural icons such as Felix the Cat. Ladbrokes has put his odds at 5/6.

Natasha Periyan

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain