The pursuit of excellence and the Turner Prize

The pursuit of excellence and the Turner Prize

by Charles Harris
article from Monday 12, December, 2016

I SHOULD like to ask this time, for you the reader to please seriously consider those questions of art and culture that our modern media does not address for us. For this week we all saw and heard still more about conceptual modern art occurring with the annual Turner Prize.

There are of course many important questions which arise from this activity: Is there any validity for its existence? What authenticity does it have? What kind of message does this send to our society? Is Junk the best we can aspire too? Is this what we want? Or think? And as I mentioned before, practically this is a question of standards, which should include public accessibility.

To help with understanding, I have tried to enlarge upon the obvious practical evidence of a complete lack of standards, as the effects are visually self-evident everywhere today. While I have also included two of your kind letters, which are very helpful too, and I appreciate the contribution.

So to begin - It is visually noticeable how this modern art movement conspired to avoid showing the lost values of beauty and aspirations that readily appeal to the human heart. For we have all seen this continuous stream of modern, heartless, artless conceptual ugliness. And from their inception, these object-ideas have nothing to do with the practical skills needed for achieving a traditional work of art, and remain as elusive as the use of modern artspeak they require for any understanding. This hurdle, like the use of any esoteric language, is limits access to those who use it, and excludes the majority of the public from taking part. This violates the aim of great art, which was always intended to be shared.

You the reader might already know my views, but let me repeat them here; I believe this Turner Prize, its processes, the products that it encourages, and its aims, are just greedy elitist self-indulgence.

By the final quarter of the 20th Century, pro-modernist ideas had overwhelmed the world of Art in Britain. So how and why did such a disaster occur for art? And who helped this happen? Practically, it is easy to see how this mess originally started with people who were unable to paint well enough to compete with those previous great painters, so they weakly changed the rules. And from that moment onwards, it has been a non-stop race to tear apart any standards in art that represent tradition in any way. So did everybody agree? Did anyone ever question the corruption this has encouraged?

Undoubtedly a cheap short-cutting of practical standards is very clear within a trendy fashion for easy modernism in art. In Drawing this has been most evident, as good drawing is not just about making pretty outlines, as has become fashion – you also need tonal ability, (chiaroscuro) as well. Whilst in great Painting you need both; with that skill and ability to introduce temperature values too, alongside those hard to achieve tonal values – to create colour in a tonal controlled three-dimensional space.

This I believe was the problem that Picasso could not solve, which upset him so much he changed the rules, unlike his countryman, the Spanish giant Velasquez. Practically, Velasquez, the court painter of King Philip III of Spain, was taught by Rubens to model from life in the round. In the past, all standards were taught, understood, and always encouraged until the 20th century, when easy to do modernism became the promoted obsession.

Naturally this was then taught by tutors who probably could not do otherwise. For in every situation, if you can do something you will? Why would you not? Unless of course you are not allowed to, like in our biased modern art education system where students are just not permitted to by misinformed teachers and tutors, who most likely went through the same experience themselves and are left without adequate experience or training themselves. So let me introduce your letters this week too.

“Hallo Charles, I like your articles.  I don’t know too much about the history and discord between modern and traditional art teaching, the consequences and a way forward. You have explained very well.  I think the same sentiment can be echoed across a number of disciplines taught in an educational setting.  Subjects are hijacked regularly with “new thinking” often ensuring at best a muddle and at worst a great loss to learning and future historians.”

“Charles, In reading the opening paragraphs, I am struck by how much you continue to hammer home the message that Art was responsible for leading society through the upheavals of the early Renaissance and Revival of Learning and had a foremost place at the head of cultural development in all areas of society.  And I reflect how today the usual awful Turner Prize, was relegated to just a mere humorous footnote on the News this day. I wonder as a society, have we really convinced ourselves that a proper need for art, truth or beauty, or traditional education for that matter, no longer exist? As you say, people may now be unaware that a cultural void exists today, having grown up in a totalitarian modernist world, that has been devoid of real art for over 60 years, yet all our very souls, our inner beings are just yearning for more better fulfillment, I am sure, I am!’

So this week I did wonder again why the Turner Prize was so named. Who said they could use this name as it has absolutely nothing to do with our Turner, who was a giant of traditional classical painting? Recognised for those skills, he is one of two British artists to rise to that standard of the Great Tradition of painting, which lasted in East and Western Europe for six hundred years. And he believed he would only regard himself as a painter when he hung next to Claude Lorrain, which he does in the National Gallery today. So what connection could possibly exist between this huge past master of skill, a giant of wonderful ability – and today’s modern conceptual art?

Recently I learnt that Waldemar Januszcczak thought this Turner prize was ‘responsible for turning the British into a nation of modern-art lovers.’ Regading the Artsnight documentary: What has the Turner Prize Ever Done for Us? ‘ (19 November, 10.10pm).  You may also wonder, as I did, about the need to use a reverse title?

While following this programme, in her feature Rachel Cook disagreed, and quoting Januszczak she wrote, “In 1990, when the Turner was in a hiatus after losing its sponsor. Guess who came to the rescue? Januszczak, then the new arts commissioning editor for Channel 4, wrote to Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, with an “offer he couldn’t refuse”: the channel would help re-launch the prize with its own sponsorship. Thereafter, thanks to a new age limit of 50 and the efforts of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin et al, the prize was reborn as a cast-iron generator of copy for writers everywhere – including Januszczak, who toddled off to become a newspaper critic.”

I certainly agreed with Rachel Cooke’s concerns and after reading the above I was further alarmed! So I visited www.tate.org.uk/turner-prize  site and found the following six postings which I quote here:

1) When choosing the name for the prize, the founders chose nineteenth-century artist J.M.W. Turner as a figure who had been innovative and controversial in his own day but also gone on to be seen as one of the greatest British artists.                                                                                      

2) Since it was set up in 1984, the Turner Prize has become one of the best known visual arts prizes.

3) The prize was first awarded in 1984.

4) It was founded by a group called the Patrons of New Art who had been formed in 1982 to encourage wider interest in contemporary modern art and to assist the (then) Tate Gallery in acquiring new works.

5) The artists can choose to show any recent work and they make their selection in collaboration with curators from Tate Britain.

6) By championing the early career of British artists, the Turner Prize has played a large part in the growing public interest in contemporary art in the UK.

I think it is clear from the amount of pro-modernist involvement from the Tate, that this prize should actually be called the Tate Prize. Especially as a former Curator of the Tate apparently said, “I would rather gnaw of my right arm than stage an exhibition of Turner.”

That’s not a lot of respect for our great Turner collection of works held at the Tate, and from a person who then apparently resigned to set up a modern conceptual art business? The name of this Tate director has also been linked with a pro-modern conceptual ‘tendency’ for buying and promoting weird modern conceptual art named after him. So I think it would be better if this biased modern prize alleging to be about art, was simply called the Tate Modern Business Prize instead. For none of this has anything to do with the pursuit of excellence in Fine Art and one of our wonderful British heroes Turner, or the Great Tradition in Art.

So what answers did YOU arrive at? Are they much different? And we can all reject that cynical old cliché about, ‘Trying to bring back a bygone age which has already passed’, for this is an attempt to encourage new understanding and try to correct this rotten mess which contemporary art has degenerated into.

So before I close, and recalling the abuses with those monstrosities I mentioned before at Nelson’s Monument in London, I wish to also ask, “Is this the right way for us British to commemorate our heroes today, and treat their names with corruption and contempt? Do let me know what you think please, and my thanks again for your letters.

Copyright – Charles Harris, Trust Your Heart - The Validity of contemporary art.

Charles drawing our British Olympic Figure Skater practicing for the Trials at Dundee. (Image given to me and already displayed on website.)

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