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Issue 95

Take the Money and Run

Stuart Morgan once wrote ‘artists are not in competition with each other but with themselves and the past.’ That said, can art prizes be useful? And if so, how?

BY Iwona Blazwick and Jeremy Deller in Opinion | 14 NOV 05

eremy Deller

Art prizes are so easy to knock; it’s like knocking Charles Saatchi. The positive aspects of winning the Turner Prize in 2004 have been the financial benefits and the increased interest in my work. Although some artists who have won it have been millionaires, for others the money is really helpful. It’s also useful as a calling card; as it’s a well-known prize, you don’t have to explain yourself so much to people.

The negative aspects have been the undue attention – the ‘can we photograph you wearing a pair of Gold Levis’ kind of thing. Because you’ve won a prize and been on television, some people think you want to be a public figure, which isn’t the case at all. The media love prizes because it makes things easier for them; the idea that it’s a competition is more in their heads than anyone else’s. The treatment artists receive from the media is where problems usually occur – when someone is hyped too much or criticized for the wrong reasons. But when I was in the Turner Prize, we had very little contact with the media, which was great; there was a very good person in the press office who protected us and was very good at screening the nominees from unwanted attention; he would advise us not to do certain interviews. One of the awful things about the experience, though, is the prize-giving night. To find out when everybody else finds out that you have not won can’t be a great feeling. The Hugo Boss prize tells the candidates in advance which I think is a good thing. Whether or not competitions are fair on artists depends on the competition and the artist; the Turner Prize asks a lot of an artist and is very high-profile, but you know this before you agree to do it. You can always say no and many have, I imagine. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists, which I received in 2001, is by comparison an almost secret prize.

In Issue 1 of frieze, Stuart Morgan, writing about the Turner Prize, stated, ‘Art is not a competition. Artists are not in competition with each other but with themselves and the past.’ I think he was spot-on, although artists, for better or worse, are continually in competition with each other to get into the big group shows, and if they make it, their work is again in competition, so it’s nothing new. Initially, though, I didn’t think I would accept my nomination, as I don’t make work that sits comfortably in galleries; but I thought it would be an interesting piece of research. Everybody has an opinion about the prize but only a handful of people have first-hand experience of it. But I never really felt the Turner was a competition: I saw it as an opportunity, a group show that a lot of people get to see. I was overwhelmed whenever I visited it as it was so busy; this was and is the real challenge for exhibiting artists.
It’s too early to say whether the selections made in competitions like the Turner Prize are representative of the art production of their respective time. However the list of nominated artists says as much about the people who selected them as about the art itself.

I’m a selector for East International this year, with Dirk Snauwaert. It’s an open submission competition: artists send in £15 and their slides, and their work will be considered. I’m curious to see what’s out there. It will be good research, getting to see the work of 500 or so artists, and I imagine the discussions we’ll have about who to include will be interesting.

If I was asked to devise an art award, it might consist of a house and studio; maybe like Acme Studios, who offer, from a national open submission, five-year work/live residencies at low rents and two-and-a-half-year bursaries at The Fire Station, in Bow in East London; that seems a good model. I applied for it once but didn’t get it. I guess what benefits who depends on the artist; a travel grant or commission can be the most useful award for some artists, while for others cash is the most pressing need. There are also some artists who should be paid not to make work.

Basically, art prizes are a blunt but handy instrument. They can push things on, in terms of discussion. In a nutshell, being in something like the Turner means you get an unbelievable amount of people looking at your work. Although it was almost frightening, it was also the best part of the experience. I certainly feel that the general public are more intelligent and curious about contemporary art than most of the press. The continuing success of the Turner prize is a testament to this.

This text is an edited transcript of a telephone conversation between Jennifer Higgie and Jeremy Deller in October, 2005.
Jeremy Deller is an artist who lives and works in London. He was the winner of the 2004 Turner Prize.

Iwona Blazwick

Art competitions come in many forms – open submission shows and public art commissions, emerging talent/lifetime achievement awards, ‘state of the art’ surveys, residency prizes. None of these has much in common with the defining competitive form: sport. The participants are not struggling to outdo each other in terms of strength, stamina or aggression. Artists may never see or even know with whom they are competing. They may not even know they are in a competition. Artists may find their work compared with other media or practices with which they have absolutely nothing in common. They may not consciously have to do anything at all. But what they must achieve is a presence on the radar of a distant, sometimes anonymous entity whose attention they must engage. The only meaningful relationship in an art competition is with a jury.

What art competitions do share with sport, however, is that there is always a winner and a loser. The loser is always the artist. Art competitions can be expensive, stressful, dangerous and humiliating. Artists may have to pay entry fees and pay for slides, DVDs, tapes, postage, packing. If they must submit an actual work, there is every possibility it will come back damaged. Hope always triumphs over experience. Who can extinguish the tiny flame of belief that they will indeed win? Or suppress fantasies of how to spend the money/install the work/use the residency? Humiliation comes in numerous forms, from opening the rejection letter (mailed second-class) to maintaining a frozen smile in front of friends, relatives and cameras on hearing ‘and the winner is’, unaccountably, someone else. And then there is the matter of the sponsor – on top of everything else, the artist may become branded.

The winner is also the artist. Art competitions make introductions. Pitching for entry into an exhibition gives practitioners the opportunity to penetrate the consciousness of an assembly of gatekeepers. At some level, at least, a practice is communicating, being recognized and engaged with by professionals. The apples and pears nature of art competitions makes them simultaneously absurd – how do you compare a painter with a filmmaker? – and curiously revealing. An individual practice is suddenly thrown against a broader panorama, giving the curators, critics, gallerists or collectors who sit on juries a powerful evocation of a Zeitgeist. Underlying preoccupations start to float to the surface as startling coincidences emerge, transcending form, medium or even subject. Despite being incarcerated for long hours in darkened rooms, jurors are also the winners. Seeing 500 paintings over two days makes you re-evaluate your critical bearings. Works of art reach the public realm after a process of refinement, which may be based on personal taste, good luck, blind spots or market fevers.

Seeing work unfiltered by the gallerist or reviews editor throws it back into the wider field of practice, where it must fight for its life and prove its merit. Jurors’ critical faculties are honed and sharpened, as indeed are their powers of articulation. In the end, they must act as advocates for competitors; a case must be made for a gut feeling. To justify a choice to a group of peers requires finding a critical language to describe and evaluate a work of art in a way that communicates beyond subjective taste. It requires eloquence and discourse. It demands that each judge becomes a champion. This can be an exhilarating process. The decision to cheer for one individual is also true for the public. The British, in particular, are a nation of punters. Witness the odds at William Hill on the Turner Prize. The debate moves away from ‘Call this art?’ to ‘Who’s your money on?’ It’s like the girl or boy band phenomenon – which one to pick, Posh or Scary?

Above all, for jurors and for the public, art competitions provide an incredible source of discovery and revelation. The roster of stars that have emerged from New Contemporaries, the Whitechapel Open/East End Academy, John Moores, the Jerwood Prize, BOC Young Artists Award, to name but a few, is awesome. Even those works that only enter the firmament briefly will nonetheless be exposed to a public gaze. That gaze may be mediated by the mass media’s inevitable recourse to cliché and prejudice or its vampiric celebrity cults. But after tabloid hysteria evaporates, most serious practices emerge unscathed. Art competitions can be a poisoned chalice – bitter but potentially intoxicating.

Iwona Blazwick is Director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London. She has been a judge on many prizes including the Turner Prize and the new MaxMara Prize for Women Artists.