The UK’s renowned Turner Prize never shies away from a contentious decision. But this year the prize, long known as a platform for emerging talent, has taken a surprising and controversial deviation by announcing the removal of the condition that entrants must be under 50 years of age.
Hosted by London’s Tate Britain, the prize is awarded annually to artists either born and/or based in Britain, and the winner receives $32,000. The 2017 shortlisted artists include Andrea Buettner, Rosalind Nashashibi, Hurvin Anderson and Lubaina Himid – of which Anderson and Himid are 52 and 62 respectively. “The upper age limit originally helped the prize define itself as an award for a breakthrough moment in a more emerging artist’s career,” said Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson in a statement. “But now this remit is so well established, I think we can safely acknowledge that artists can experience a breakthrough at any age, without any risk of the prize becoming a lifetime achievement award.”
While it offers a more open door to deserving talent, the move has not been unanimously well received. When the prize was established in 1984, it intended to draw attention to new developments and ground-breaking moments in contemporary art that represented the British scene. Now, as it plays a more omniscient role, a slew of potential problems in how to define and nominate contenders develop.
By uncovering fresh talent, the Turner Prize was a serious player in the launch of the careers of Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing, Chris Ofili, Douglas Gordan and Steve McQueen, who all received the award in the 1990s, when the average winning age was 34. Its adjusted ethos, a recurring suggestion which was tackled in 1990 and quashed by Tate’s then-director Nicholas Serota, provides “philosophical difficulties” such as “the impossibility of comparing artists of established practice and reputation with those only recently emerged into prominence,” he wrote then. And the argument still stands.
While the prize can acknowledge late bloomers, as with Himid, who only recently received wide recognition this year despite having had work in the Tate collection since 1995, including established artists alongside newer names lies within a grey zone of what is considered a new development in contemporary art. “It’s good to not fetishise newness, and think solely in terms of finding new voices,” said Mason Leaver-Yap, Turner Prize juror and curator at the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis) and the KW Institute for Contemporary Art (Berlin), “but actually [recognising] voices that have something to say, and have had something to say, but may not have received the national visibility that they deserve.”
Additional justification includes alluding to emotional maturity, not just artistic. “Sometimes it can be too early and artists aren’t ready for that level of attention that things like the Turner Prize bring,” said Emily Pethick, juror and director of Showroom Gallery (London) to The Art Newspaper. However, the suggestion that the emotional capacity for younger artists to handle being in the spotlight undermines the foundation of the prize. It stands to possibly omit recognition of a faction of deserving talent and the uncovering of legitimate new developments, which could become overshadowed by the inevitable benefits of an artist simply having been around longer.
On a positive note, the change in format does respond to previous criticisms that the prize largely ignored painting (Anderson and Himid feature painting heavily). But the prize still runs into the problem of trying to compare the incomparable and objectively gauge contributions to contemporary art over a vastly varied period of time. But the Turner Prize and Tate Britain don’t appear too concerned and implies that their practices and artistic results put them on equal standing. The artists are “very different from each other,” stated Farquharson, but they “share a noticeable engagement with wider social and political issues; a kind of moral or maybe social vision lies behind their practice, albeit one that is laced with poetics, visual pleasure and, at times, humour.”
This year’s exhibition for the nominated artists will take place at Ferens Art Gallery in Hull. The winner will be announced on a live BBC broadcast on 5 December.
For more information visit tate.org.uk