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24 November 2016updated 03 Aug 2021 12:13pm

What has the Turner Prize ever done for us?

Waldemar Januszczak thinks it was responsible for turning the British into a nation of modern-art lovers. Rachel Cooke disagrees.

By Rachel Cooke

What to make of Waldemar Januszczak’s hair, which is now styled in such a way as to make him look a little like Keith Flint from the Prodigy? Is this a cry for help, or a last-ditch attempt to be down with the kids? Not that the baby shark fin had much effect on his Artsnight documentary What Has the Turner Prize Ever Done for Us? (19 Nov­ember, 10.10pm). A fire-starter it wasn’t. Admittedly, 30 minutes is no time at all in which to interrogate so juicy a subject. All the same, he could have been a bit less equivocal. In the end, his argument – if he had one boiled down to the fact that the Turner, like all prizes, has good years and bad.

Oddly, the decade he identified as the most “relevant” in its history began in 1990, when the Turner was in a hiatus after losing its sponsor. Guess who came to the rescue? Januszczak, then the new arts commissioning editor for Channel 4, wrote to Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, with an “offer he couldn’t refuse”: the channel would help relaunch the prize with its own sponsorship. Thereafter, thanks to a new age limit of 50 and the efforts of Damien, Tracey et al, the prize was reborn as a cast-iron generator of copy for writers everywhere – including Januszczak, who toddled off to become a newspaper critic and has apparently used the phrase “Turner must be spinning in his grave” twice in the years since (not something I’d have confessed to, in his shoes).

So, what has the Turner Prize ever done for us? Januszczak thinks it was responsible for turning the British into a nation of modern-art lovers. I disagree. Much as many of us love modern art (trend alert: a lot of people still hate it), the opening in 2000 of Tate Modern, complete with the adult playground that is its Turbine Hall, had a far greater effect. Besides, contemporary art and modern art are entirely different things. The sombre types who pack out shows by Matisse and Rothko are wildly different from those people who, even as I write, are staring up at Project for Door (After Gaetano Pesce), Anthea Hamilton’s installation at this year’s Turner show, wondering if it’s some kind of super-prescient commentary on Donald Trump, or just a giant arse.

If anything has changed in the art world in the past quarter-century, it is to do with money. Another BBC2 documentary, Sold! Inside the World’s Biggest Auction House (19 November, 9.10pm and 26 November, 8.30pm), opened the doors of Christie’s, which has been marking its 250th anniversary. The scoop was at once wholly predictable and utterly mind-boggling. When a newbie Chinese collector, Edward Zeng, wandered in off the street and paid $3.3m for Yves Klein’s Untitled Blue Monochrome, a painting he first saw up close long after the gavel came down, I was not remotely surprised: in context, it seemed like a bargain, the art equivalent of bagging a good frock at the Fenwick’s sale. But in the matter of what sells and what doesn’t, I have to confess to both shock and awe.

Classical antiquities can barely be given away these days, no matter how beautiful or rare; collectors want names, and you don’t find many of those on statues of Dionysus. But brands – for that is what we’re talking about – come and go, in art as in fashion. (Christie’s belongs to François Pinault, who also owns Gucci.) At a sale of impressionist and modern art, a Monet raised less than its estimate and a Picasso failed to shift. Meanwhile, in the same week, a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat went for a record $57.3m.

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Christie’s described Untitled (1982) as a “seminal work” of “visceral energy”. But then, that’s its job: sell, sell. The truth, however, is that, as Robert Hughes wrote way back in 1988, Basquiat doesn’t just illustrate the contemporary-art boom; he parodies it. Basquiat was a small, untrained talent who had the good sense to die before he could be exposed as a fraud, and his extravagant reputation has been caught in the headwind of art-world puffery for almost two decades now. When that breeze drops, the devastation is going to be . . . well, interesting. 

What Has the Turner Prize Ever Done for Us? 
Sold! Inside the World’s Biggest Auction House, BBC 2

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This article appears in the 23 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile