Time the Turner prize grew up: why it needs to embrace the over-50s


In the 1990s, having an age limit on Turner prize nominees dovetailed with a young punk energy in British art. But it’s now a pointless and conservative rule.


The Guardian reports that the Turner prize is looking old – and paradoxically, this is down to its obsession with youth.

The prize that did so much to make the Young British Artist movement famous in the 1990s has a rule that to be eligible you have to be under the age of 50. That rule is looking increasingly bizarre, self-destructive and inane. The YBA generation themselves are now too old to be shortlisted for the Turner – so sod off Gary Hume, Tacita Dean, and Jake and Dinos Chapman, you’ll never get another chance at the Turner. The Tate doesn’t need old-fogey art in its groovy youth prize – especially those senior British artists from Frank Auerbach to Phyllida Barlow.

If you look at the landscape of art in Britain now, the Turner’s conviction that avant garde energy, let alone substantial achievement, is confined to artists under 50 is completely unconvincing. This is recognised by the new Hepworth prize for sculpture, which has outflanked the Turner by shortlisting four artists from across all generations. Helen Marten, born in 1985, is shortlisted for both prizes – yet in the Hepworth, she’s up against Barlow, born in 1944. That breadth of generations makes this look a more serious comparison of excellence.

The Turner’s age rule was adopted in 1991 to stop it being won every year by Lucian Freud, or other established British artists. In the words of the prize’s website, the rule was introduced to clarify “that the prize was not a lifetime achievement award”. In 1991 – the year the Saatchi Gallery showed Hirst’s shark – a genuine youth revolt was breaking out in British art. The Hirst generation really did see themselves as punkish rebels taking on a sclerotic art establishment, and the Turner’s rule reflected their rawness.

Today, it would obviously be better for the Turner prize to be broader and loftier, to raise its game and recognise the very best art rather than imposing criteria that limit its own importance. It has become complacent and insular. It is in fact conservative – it insists its old ways are the best. But what worked in 1991 does not work now.

By excluding mature artists, the Turner has become slight and often boring – because it is not a prize for the very best artists around, just a showcase for some interesting younger artists whose work may or may not stand the test of time.

Has the idiocy of the Turner’s youth cult never occurred to the Tate trustees? Of course it has. They decided to abolish the under-50 rule in time for the 2009 Turner prize. I know because I was on the jury that year and we were briefed to look for artists of all ages.

A few months into the judging, however, we were told the decision had been reversed. The age rule must stay, so cross those wrinklies from the list. We gave it to a 49-year-old instead. I don’t know if this issue has been debated since, but it must be if the Turner is ever again to truly matter. This year’s Turner prize exhibition looks like what it is: a fun but by no means overwhelming display of work by four promising young artists.

It is an enjoyable enough way to spend 20 minutes but it would have so much more authority if it also included respected artists – including famous ones from the entire pool of living British artists. Plainly, a prize that was given every year to David Hockney or Frank Auerbach would not be very exciting. This is the Tate’s nightmare. Yet a prize that can by definition never go to such outstanding artists – or to the veterans of the YBA era is just as dull, and twice as trivial. The Turner excludes so much talent, ignores so much achievement. Imagine a Turner prize in which young newcomers had to battle it out with the likes of Martin Parr, Leon Kossoff, Rebecca Warren and Gustav Metzger. Sounds good, right? That Turner exhibition would be worth a lot more than 20 minutes of an intelligent person’s time.

(Article source: The Guardian)

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