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The Turner prize’s spurning of George Shaw shows the art world is shallow

December 8, 2011

George Shaw should have won the Turner. That he didn’t shows art is now judged by criteria that are pretentious and empty

Turner Prize 2011

‘Very few artists in recent years have so powerfully dealt with deep, enigmatic feeling’ … Shut Up by George Shaw. Photograph: Baltic/Colin Davison/Ho/EPA

It has been a while since the Turner prize really enraged me. Only yesterday I was praising it. This art prize often used to make my blood boil. Then in 2009, I was on the Turner jury: I didn’t annoy myself at all. I worked hard to make sure that every decision the jury made was one I was happy with – especially the winner, Richard Wright. Then, last year, there was a kind of OK, slightly so-so shortlist, no disgrace to the Turner, yet nothing to arouse my passions either way. But this year I fell in love with the art of George Shaw, and to see him shortlisted for the Turner then cast down as an also-ran infuriates and, to be honest, disgusts me. I had forgotten how stupid the Turner prize can be.

Wait, wait. I have nothing against Martin Boyce. I simply think Shaw is more important. This comes down to the theatricality of the Turner. It is spectacular, so it favours installation and disfavours painting. Put paintings on a wall against a wacky reinvention of an entire room, and the room strikes many people as cooler – or it tends to strike Turner judges as cooler. The reason Richard Wright, a painter, carried away the prize in 2009 was that he beat the installationists at their own game with his reinvention of the art of fresco.

Shaw is a far more “traditional” painter – and an artist of real emotional depth who breaks out of contemporary art’s style games. For the art world to spurn Shaw is a confession of its own shallowness.

As soon as the exhibition opened the muttering started. Shaw was “miserabilist”, he was like LS Lowry. His lifelong obsession with recreating the landscapes of his childhood in modellers’ paints, resulting in eerie depopulated visions of the Britain we live in, was somehow a bit limited. A bit dour.

My God. I would love to see this logic applied across time, and to the other arts. Van Gogh? A bit glum, isn’t he? Thomas HardyNot another novel about Wessex.

Most damning is the comparison with the other arts in Britain today and their critical reception. Shaw’s world, at once real and fictive, makes me think of good modern fiction. But imagine if he actually was a novelist. Would he be passed over for prizes because his stories were too glum? That would be an absurd thing to say about a novelist. It is even harder to imagine him being done down by the theatre world, where severity seems universally admired.

Read more at: The Turner prize’s spurning of George Shaw shows the art world is shallow

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