Why Tracey Emin isn't smiling

Peter Watson reveals that, weary of pickled sheep and unmade beds, art world insiders are plotting t

Last year, attending a lecture at the National Gallery in London, I witnessed the most elegant and witty put-down of contemporary art I have yet encountered. Colin Wiggins, the gallery's curator of painting, spent almost an hour talking about a handful of masterpieces by Pierre Bonnard, each of which features an unmade bed.

When Bonnard went away for the weekend to stay with his posh friends, his wife - much shyer, less socially accomplished - would put up at a nearby hotel where he would join her for the night. This way, the couple could make love to their hearts' content. Their passion played havoc with the sheets but, as Wiggins showed, the painter was taken with the mess - and the colour, shadows and sfumato of Bonnard's beds were all breathtaking: they shimmered like Monet's waterlilies, or Van Gogh's cornfields, but had that added dimension of intimacy. Wiggins wasn't so vulgar as to mention Tracey Emin, but he didn't need to. She is not fit to keep such company.

The lecture came back to me the other day as I toured the opening of the Andy Warhol exhibition at Tate Modern. Warhol and Emin have this much in common: they are both sphinxes without a secret. Like Warhol, Emin knows how to smile and say as little as possible, hoping - like him - that silence will be taken for depth, for reflection, for wit, for sensibility, rather than for what it actually is: emptiness.

But I am beginning to think this approach is not going to work for much longer. The bad aesthetic times we have endured in Britain for too long may finally be coming to an end - and I don't say that because of Ivan Massow's denunciation of conceptual art in the NS 21 January issue. I say so because, without knowing it, and despite being fired as chairman by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Massow has some very powerful allies within the Tate.

Yes, that's right. More than one senior figure in the Tate establishment has confided to me in the past weeks that he/she was appalled by this year's Turner Prize shenanigans and hopes that they will never be repeated. The banalities of contemporary art, they feel, have gone far enough. (And they, in this case, belong to both sexes and are of different nationalities.) In particular, the work of this year's prizewinner, Martin Creed - an installation with light bulbs switching on and off - was criticised as "hopelessly stillborn". Another Tate "insider" told me that "for the moment, photography is more interesting than contemporary painting".

I'm a bit surprised that all this has not come out before, as the criticisms were made to me at the museum's party to celebrate its new exhibition. Held at Billingsgate fish market, the event was attended by tous les grands poissons d'art - and many of them were eager to share their exasperation at the status quo.

Even more important, I understand that preliminary moves are afoot to reconceive the prize. However much Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, may be identified with contemporary art in some people's eyes, and however firmly he rules the roost at the Tate, he is not a stubborn man and, as I read it, three possible changes are contemplated. One is to make the prize biennial, allowing more time for good work to emerge, and making the award ceremony less routine. A second possibility is to lift the age limit that requires artists to be aged 40 or younger; and a third is to remove the embargo on non-British artists.

The third change would rather remove the point of the prize, but the other two sound like sensible, positive steps. The harsh truth is that a prize designed to encourage young British artists has failed. It has not failed in marketing or media terms, where it has been a resounding success, but that has disguised its failure in more important ways: intellectually and aesthetically.

The prize as currently conceived has helped direct artists' attention to early glory, by whatever outrageous device, rather than encourage talented people to evolve and build up a solid body of work, and with it a well-earned reputation. Turner himself was precocious, but fell out of favour until he was rescued by Ruskin when he was in his late sixties. There are lessons here, one of which is that prizes only work when they come at the end of the race, not at the start.

These whispers about the revamping of the prize come at an opportune time. Three exhibitions on show in London at the moment underline the point that we have been, and are, living in bad aesthetic times (to use a phrase coined by the American critic and philosopher Arthur Danto), and that change is needed.

Most clearly this is shown by the exhibition at the Royal Academy: a blockbuster on "Paris: capital of the arts, 1900-1968". Almost no reference is made in this show to the parallel developments in Paris in dance, theatre, architecture and poetry. But perhaps we should not expect too much scholarship from an institution which, last year, mounted an exhibition on the Caravaggistes that had four fakes in it - which the academy failed to point out. But in any case, maybe that doesn't matter now: for what the current exhibition does advertise is the dramatic collapse of painting that occurred in Paris in the Second World War. Whether it was the Occupation that sparked the decline, or the mental and physical exhaustion of war, or being a divided country, or something else entirely, the RA show makes it very clear that beauty, invention and craftsmanship simply disappeared in Paris after the early 1940s, never to return. The exhibition shows how standards can fall and art can die. It is a stark warning.

A second example is a much smaller exhibition, the collection of the art critic and curator David Sylvester, which comes up for sale at Sotheby's on 26 February. For many people, Sylvester - who died last year - was a guru, the critic/curator of our time who mounted what the fashionistas consider to have been the most important exhibitions in contemporary art. Grey Gowrie has called him "the Diaghilev of his field". This is art-dealer-speak, because in fact Sylvester's collection is a mess: as untidy and unformed as an Emin bed, characterised by crude sculpture, plain antiquities and run-of-the-mill carpets. Diaghilev would not have been seen dead with this sort of tat. On this evidence, the great taste-maker of our times didn't have any. There is a lesson here, too.

Then there is the Warhol exhibition itself. The revealing irony here is that it shows how someone who was without question the most influential figure in the visual arts since the Second World War was, at the same time, a very poor artist. The criticisms one could make are legion. The texture of the paintings is uniformly flat, worse even than Picasso's; the colours are invariably garish; and the subject matter: well, dear Rosie Millard said, in her review of the exhibition for the BBC, that "this is a show with something for everyone", and then went on to add "fame, celebrity, media". Well, er, yes.

Warhol's subject matter was as limited as his "take" on the electric chair, which was to paint it red, or blue, or green; or on Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, where his contribution was to turn bits of the image upside down. Gosh. A barrow boy in the Mile End Road knows that a barrowload of oranges is more mouth-watering than a boxful. But is that art - or marketing?

When you visit these exhibitions, one after the other, you cannot help but realise how unambitious contemporary art has become for itself, how unidimensional the aesthetics are. How much longer will it take us to admit that pop art and its bastard children - conceptual art, for instance - are intellectual and aesthetic dead ends? And that so-called luminaries such as Warhol, Sylvester and Emin are, or were, cultural eunuchs whose bullets are, or were, all blank?

Revamping the Turner Prize is the single most important initiative the Tate establishment could make to move us beyond bad aesthetic times. It won't effect change overnight, or all by itself, but it is a high-profile start.

The Tate should proceed immediately.

Peter Watson's A Terrible Beauty: the people and ideas that shaped the modern mind is available in paperback (Phoenix)