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by Charles Thomson (Nov 2002)

The contention about Turner Prize centres on what is and isn't art, but this is something of a red herring. The heated arguments arise because the art is a symbol for values and meaning in human existence.

The current exhibits derive ultimately from a urinal exhibited by Duchamp in the middle of the First World War. He introduced an object into the art arena which had formerly not been considered unacceptable. It had not been considered unacceptable for the simple reason that no one had previously considered it at all.

The values that informed the parameters of art at the time automatically dictated an outcome which urinals had no part in. They were the values of mainstream society, or perhaps more accurately the ideals of mainstream society, dosed where necessary with hypocrisy. They were essentially lofty and in the main unattainable ideals. They encompassed beauty, romanticism, religiosity, sentimentality and prudish morality.

Duchamp saw falsity and understandably felt moved to challenge it by in his words "throwing a piss pot in their faces". It was an act of outrage and destruction, necessary when the rotten has to be cleared away.

Turner Prize art in this country - and conceptual art worldwide - is a descendent of Duchamp's provocative ceramic. The previous quote from him ends with his astonishment that now "they admire it for its aesthetic beauty". His was a throwaway act, literally - he didn't even keep the original (but cashed in during the sixties with some, by then very expensive, reproductions).

It was not intended to create a new order, but to get rid of the old. Now we see the revolution attempting to continue, but the original necessity has gone and the result is a masquerade.

The example of the destruction of the existing order has been mistaken for an enduring value, but it is essentially a lack of values.It is this lack that the general public instinctively turn away from.

Duchamp was an intellectual and so are Turner Prize artists and so is Sir Nicholas Serota and others subscribing to this ethos, albeit with varying intellectual capacities. That is why we are subject to an art which can only work on the level of thought, and by the denial of the instinctive and the emotional.

If we walk into a room, any room whether gallery or not, and see an arrangement of mundane items or rubbish, our instinctive response is that this is merely what it is - mundane or rubbish. Our emotional response is the same.

It is only by an exercise of intellect in denial of these responses that we can seriously believe we are experiencing anything which 'means' anything. 'Conceptual' art is only acceptable if one is prepared to maintain a psychological disassociation.

The knee-jerk reaction of 'what a load of rubbish' is actually a harmonising of thought and feeling, and an integrated 'holistic' response.

There is in most people an instinctive reaction that the values embodied in such art are not ones that are worth incorporating into their life.

They are values of novelty on the surface and nihilism deeper down. There is a substitution of irony and game-playing for self-knowledge.

The Stuckists are committed to 'figurative' painting as an art form (sculpture is included here), not because it is traditional but because it is adaptable. Language needs to be subtle, wide-ranging and flexible to communicate.

A young child has difficulty communicating anything more than crude responses verbally because their language is basic. Shakespeare has no such limitation.

Conceptual art uses materials which are capable of expression - in themselves - only on the infantile level. Small 'interferences' in an object's normal state do not allow a major creative achievement.

Painting is capable of the most precise and subtly evocative communication because of the flexibility it allows.

That doesn't mean that all painting is good, but even at its worst, there is a knowledge in the viewer, both instinctively and rationally - and wherever they may encounter it - that they are experiencing something whose existence has only come about because it is intended to be art.

Other relevant pages:
Stuckist Turner Prize demos