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: https://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.