In the lowlit central hall of the Tate, the great and good have gathered for Britain's most prestigious art award; dealers and society belles are sipping champagne at black marble tables strewn with lilies, dressed in exquisite suits and designer dresses slashed to the thigh. The Turner Prize is an international by-word for gently baffling art, and its promotion of bland iconoclasts like Tracey Emin helped consolidate the self-reflexive iconography of the Blair era. This, believe it or not, was what radicalism in this country used to look like -- but over the tinkle of piped-in piano music and wry discussion of ironic sculpture, a real cry of protest has gone up. Cordoned off behind two ranks of makeshift barriers, the young artists of the future have assembled to call out the hypocrisy of the rich.
Two hundred students from Goldsmiths, the Slade, St Martin's, Camberwell and other world-famous art and fashion colleges are intoning their demands in solemn unison, their voices amplified by the heavenly acoustics of the stone hallway into which they have been shepherded by the police. They mobilised via Facebook and Twitter to disrupt the Turner award ceremony in protest against upcoming government cuts to arts and humanities funding, higher education and public sector jobs. "We are not just here to fight fees!" they yell. "We are here to fight philistinism!"
The sound of their chanting rises psalmlike behind the police line, which has been tastefully boarded off by resourceful staff members. I'm not actually supposed to be here. When I heard that friends and comrades from occupations across the city were planning to disrupt the Turner Prize, I snuck in past the heavy security using the time-honoured journalist method of walking purposefully and authoritatively in the direction of somewhere you're definitely not supposed to be. I dash surreptitiously through the party and then dodge around the modesty screens separating it from the party, too fast for the security guards to grab me.
Suddenly, we're through the looking glass. On one side of this screen, sullen middle-aged people have been made rich beyond their wildest dreams by exploiting popular nihilism; on the other, the age of apathy has ended as the trendy wing of Britain's disenfranchised youth reminds the wealthy that there's more to radicalism than pickling half a sheep in some preserving fluid. They are crammed into an alcove conducting what one dreamy-eyed young hipster solemnly informs me is a "noise protest", shouting down Miuccia Prada as she awards the prize to a more gentle and considered sound installation.
"For too long, we were taught that our art could only reference itself endlessly, like a snake eating its own tail. But this is real," says Margarita, 22, a media student at the Slade school of art. "Ironic art is dead now -- it's undead," she says. "That's because we finally have hope. We have something real, something to believe in again."
"As an artist, this protest is a huge relief," says Simon, another Slade occupier. "That's not just because we have to stop the cuts to arts and the public sector, it's a relief because it's serious -- the issues are deeply serious."
Simon and Margarita belong to the generation that grew up in the apathetic nineties, when passion and idealism were unmodish and an ironic shrug the only authentic response to the rampant banality of consumer culture. But something has changed. For weeks now, the young British artists of the future have been occupying their departments in solidarity with the student riots taking place up and down the country, barricading the doors and abandoning their individual projects to work collectively on more practical art: banner-making and impromptu installations in vinyl and ink on the theme of capital and complicity. Meanwhile, delegates at the Turner Prize party munch on very expensive miniature snacks, cannibalising greasy crumbs of the caustic pre-crash self-reflexion industry.
Behind the screen, the children's crusade is screaming to be allowed some semblance of a secure future. On the other side of the looking glass, as the well-heeled cultural elite of the Blair era drift in lazy pirouettes of ironic self-regard, the prize-winner Susan Philipsz takes a moment in her acceptance speech to defend those pesky kids that everyone had been trying so hard to ignore. 'Education is a right, not a privilege," she says, "So I support what the students are doing, I support the arts against cuts campaign." I peek behind the police line just in time to watch the ironic smiles freeze into a group rictus of dismay.