Turner Prize 2019: Art doesn't demand winners and losers, but prize-giving does

The results of the Booker and Turner prizes reflect a climate of hesitance and reluctance to commit. 

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On Tuesday evening, the UK’s most prestigious art prize was awarded jointly to its four nominated artists “to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity”.

At a ceremony held in the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo and Tai Shani were awarded the Turner Prize after writing to the judging panel to request they be considered as a collective. In a joint letter, they wrote: 

“This year you have selected a group of artists who, perhaps more than ever before in the Prize's history, are all engaged in forms of social or participatory practice. More specifically, each of us makes art about social and political issues and contexts we believe are of great importance and urgency. The politics we deal with differ greatly, and for us it would feel problematic if they were pitted against each other, with the implication that one was more important, significant or more worthy of attention than the others.”

This year’s works include video installations investigating the politics of sound by self-declared “private ear” Lawrence Abu Hamdan; a congregation of human figures, brought to Margate in wheelchairs and left to stare out at a curtain-covered window overlooking the sea by Oscar Murillo; an audio-visual installation of a post-patriarchal fantasy world by Tai Shani; and a documentary film commemorating the overlooked role of women in the Northern Irish Troubles by Helen Cammock.

The jury praised the artists’ commitment to collective power, with Vogue’s editor-in-chief Edward Enninful presenting the £40,000 prize to be split equally between the four winners.

Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain and chair of the Turner Prize jury, said: “In coming together and presenting themselves as a group, this year’s nominated artists certainly gave the jury a lot to think about. But it is very much in the spirit of these artists’ work to challenge convention, to resist polarised world views, and to champion other voices. The jury all felt that this made the collective a worthy winner of the Turner Prize.”

The result follows the recent decision to award the 2019 Booker Prize to not one but two authors – Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood – in a ruling that saw the judges explicitly defy the rules of the prize, which state there must be one winner. This outcome was met with criticism across the board: that the judges had one job and didn’t do it; that the first black woman winner was not allowed to have the prize to herself; that awarding two prizes defeats the primary objective of the prize which is to shift copies of books.

The Turner result is a slightly different story – it was the nominees themselves who came together to request the result, rather than the judges who broke the rules. This sets a different precedent, one of artists working together for the greater good of their industry rather than being pitted against each other. Whichever artist first conceived of the idea to write to the judges, the group’s willingness to work together and surrender their individual chances of winning the full prize money suggests an admirable stance of unity.

But as a trend, these results are concerning. The recent outcomes of both the Booker and Turner Prizes reflect the world in which we are living, where no one, not even those employed with the single objective of choosing one winner, feels able to make a clear-cut decision. It speaks to a climate of flakiness, of hesitance, of reluctance to commit, and suggests that artists are happy to be given the publicity and professional security that comes with being nominated for such a prize, but are unhappy to be in with the chance of losing, of coming home empty-handed.

It also asks: what is being judged in these competitions? The four Turner Prize-winning artists are right to say that the political subjects they deal with should not be pitted against each other. But the purpose of the prize is not to deem human rights abuses more significant than sexism, for example. It is not to claim one “message” more important than another. It is to judge the merit of the craft. Whether any one work of art is ever “better” than another is always a matter of opinion and taste. And while you may not always agree with a jury’s decision, respected prizes should bring a work that invites discussion to public attention; they should open minds and excite audiences about a medium’s potential.

With regards to the more straightforward fact of sharing prize money, the decision to split the prize with nominees follows Helen Marten’s 2016 Turner win, when she pledged to share her prize with her fellow nominees just three weeks after doing the same with her winnings from the inaugural Hepworth Prize. Earlier this year, the writer Olivia Laing, after winning the James Tait Black Prize in August this year for her novel Crudo, split the £10,000 prize money with her fellow shortlisted authors because “competition has no place in art”. Laing said her decision “was very much prompted by Boris Johnson and Brexit, and a sense of wanting to fight back against this endless culture of winners and losers.”

But while art doesn't demand winners or losers, prize-giving does. To engage in the culture of prizes is, rightly or wrongly, to enter into the world of judgement, and to take on all that follows.

All four winners’ exhibits will continue to be displayed free of charge, as was always planned, at the Turner Contemporary until 12 January. Approximately 95,000 people have visited the exhibition in Margate so far, making it one of the most popular Turner prize shows held outside London. There may be no one official winner this year, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a considered look around each of the four exhibits, and take the time to make your own mind up.

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman's culture assistant.