BY Juliet Jacques in Opinion | 12 MAY 21

What the 2021 Turner Prize Nominees Tell Us About the Politics of Art

As the prestigious award announces a shortlist comprised of artist collectives, Juliet Jacques reflects on UK government funding cuts to the arts after more than a decade of austerity

BY Juliet Jacques in Opinion | 12 MAY 21

This year, for the first time, the Turner Prize shortlist is made up entirely of artists’ collectives. They are Array Collective, established in 2016 in Belfast, with 11 artists organising projects around abortion rights, queer liberation, mental health and gentrification; London-based sound art/activist group Black Obsidian Sound System, set up by and for QTIPOC (queer, trans and intersex people of colour) in 2018; food art/activist duo Cooking Sections; Gentle/Radical, started in Cardiff in 2016, which advocates art as a means for social change, focusing on its local district; and Project Art Works, a group of neurodiverse artists and makers based in East Sussex, which continued to exhibit in the window of the closed Hastings Contemporary gallery throughout the lockdowns. All combine film, painting, installation or sound art with socially engaged practice, and will feature in an exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, city of culture for 2021, with the £25,000 prize winner announced on 1 December.

B.O.S.S., 2019, artists portrait. Photograph: Theodorah Ndovlu; courtesy: Tate Britain, London

It’s the third consecutive year that the UK’s most prestigious art award has been subverted, or – if you prefer – democratized, after the 2019 Prize was shared at the shortlisted artists’ request, and the 2020 one was cancelled amidst the COVID-19 crisis and replaced with ten bursaries for artists who had made ‘significant contributions to new developments in British contemporary art’. The judges’ recent decision reflects the fact that few artists have been able to exhibit new work since March 2020: Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain and chair of the judges, told the Guardian that ‘the jury has selected five outstanding collectives whose work has not only continued through the pandemic but become even more relevant as a result’.

Project Art Works, Illuminating the Wilderness, On Location at Glen Afric, 2018. Photograph: © Project Art Works; courtesy: Tate Britain, London

These trends – for artists to work in collectives, and to seek to democratize the art world and its awards – have grown since the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent ruling-class turn towards austerity, amidst the rise and fall of left populist movements from Podemos and Syriza to the Democratic Socialist Alliance and Corbyn’s Labour, and the emergence of new unions for renters and precarious workers. This year’s winner will not be the first victorious collective: that honour went to Assemble in 2015 for its Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool, in which it renovated a council estate, with local residents. That Assemble, like this year’s nominees, used art to fill gaps in service provision is telling. This turn to the collective is, however, not so much a rejection of the concept of ‘the artist’ as a response to a decade of funding cuts that have hit working-class and marginalized people the hardest.

Cooking Sections, artists portrait. Photograph: Ruth Clark; courtesy: Tate Britain, London

For all its talk of levelling up – in the hope of diffusing anger at how years of austerity have exacerbated inequalities and fuelled far-right, nativist politics – the Conservative government is determined to raze the arts to the ground. They have imposed huge budget cuts for culture ever since it returned to power in 2010, including a 100% cut in Somerset in 2011. It threatened Newcastle with the same in 2012, eventually agreeing to merely halve local funding whilst also forcing the council to shut libraries, make cuts to youth and children’s services and slash 1,300 jobs. Buttressed by the UK’s print and broadcast media, it has manufactured consent for attacks on university arts and humanities courses, designed to make them accessible only to the rich, through a constant ‘culture war’ – one that artists are increasingly realizing, however wearily, that they cannot avoid. Waldemar Januszczak of the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times, which has led the insufferable and inescapable ‘war on woke’, tweeted that the shortlist showed ‘what a trend-hungry and undemocratic fix [the Turner Prize] has become’, as part of a coordinated, reactionary effort to cow radical artists into silence and institutions threatened with cuts into not platforming them.

Gentle/Radical, 2021, portrait. Photograph: Michal Iwanowski; courtesy: Tate Britain, London

For those institutions, responding to the mutually exclusive goals of art collectives and budget holders will be increasingly difficult. Regarding the shortlist, Black Obsidian Sound System wrote that ‘The urgency with which we have been asked to participate, perform and deliver demonstrates the extractive and exploitative practices in prize culture, and more widely across the industry’, saying they were being ‘instrumentalized’ at a time when Tate Enterprises was cutting hundreds of jobs. Members of such collectives may be better equipped than individuals to work with communities on socially engaged projects, but they cannot perform the functions of the state forever, and especially not in ever more constrained circumstances. Just how much support they get from political parties as the culture wars drag the discourse further to the right remains to be seen.

Main image: Array Collective, Pride, 2019. Photograph: Laura O’Connor; courtesy: Tate Britain, London

Thumbnail: Array Collective, 2021, group shot. Photograph: Jon Beer; courtesy: Tate Britain, London

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June 2022. Her second short story collection, The Woman in the Portrait, will be published in July.