The Day I Took My Mum To See The Turner Prize

During the Christmas holidays I took my mum to see the Turner Prize exhibition at the Baltic in Gateshead. The main thing that you should know about my mum is that she isn’t from any kind of arts background and has no time whatsoever for “modern art”. What my mum does like are paintings of traditional country scenes, William Morris wallpaper and photo-realism; “I like to be able to tell what a picture is actually of.”
I was interested to know how she would she would respond to perhaps the contemporary art scene’s most infamous art prize, just saying the words “Turner Prize” to most people (including many art & design based people that I know) induces a terrible rage. “That’s not real art!” “Bloody Damian Hurst!” “It’s all fine art bollocks!”  etc, etc. So what was this year’s shock entry to draw the crowds? Well… to be honest, in my opinion there wasn’t one. Nothing about the collection of nominees as a whole struck me as particularly adventurous or exciting; or offensive or subversive. But what did my mum think?


My mum’s verdict: “Hmmm… it’s a bit boring isn’t it?”

For me the most important quotation from this interview with Hilary Lloyd comes right at the end when she says “I don’t think I know what the work’s saying”, this got on my nerves. It makes me feel annoyed that me and my mum stood for ten minuets trying to work out the point of it all, when apparently she didn’t know either. I’m agreeing with my mum here, the work was boring, and didn’t seem to trigger an emotional response from anyone else in the room either.


My mum’s verdict:Anyone could do that!”

My mum was wholly unimpressed by Karla Black’s sculptures; “They’re just sheets, what’s the point of that?”. But for me Black’s work was really interesting and one of the things that I enjoyed most about the exhibition. I like to see gallery space used to it’s full potential, and it’s only really instillation and sculpture pieces that do that. I also like art that creates it’s own habitat or environment, and in a way the cloud-like landscape was it’s own little world. That said, I think I can see why my mum didn’t like it.


My mum’s verdict:”Aren’t they photos? I thought they were photos!” 

George Shaw probably should have won the prize, certainly about 80% of the post-its on the “Have Your Say” board were people saying he was their favourite artist; one said something like “George Shaw: the British public’s winner”, almost all of the posts by children listed him as “the best!”. He was my favourite artist in the exhibition too, not only for his incredible skill level and wit, but also for his views on making art that is accessible to everyone; for the professor of fine art and his mum!
Disappointingly for me, my mum didn’t warm all that much to Shaw’s paintings, although she said that they showed “tremendous skill” mistaking many of them for being photographs, she didn’t really like the apparent grimness of the scenes.


My mum’s verdict:”This is really really good, it’s real design.”

I can’t say that I was personally bowled over by  Boyce’s work (although as demonstrated in the above interview his thought and development processes are really strong), but my mum surprised me by really liking it! She said that she thought it was “original” and “clever” to make everyday object such as grates and light fixtures into their own works of art and that she could see evidence of the skill level needed to make the pieces.

Special thanks to my mum for letting me drag her along.

All images from


What this whole trip really got me thinking about- and what the conversations I had with my friends subsequently tended to shift towards- was the concept of art as communication and who this communication was intended for. I do NOT subscribe in the slightest to Hillary Lloyd’s assertion that it doesn’t matter if you “don’t get it”. It matters. If you’re making art that is art for arts sake, that’s purely about aesthetic or  beauty or “qualities”, then that could be said to have it’s own values; but in that case the fact that the art has been created only to be enjoyed on this level should be apparent within the art. You shouldn’t have to find yourself standing in front of a piece of work scratching your head wondering what it means if there is no answer.
The problem is that a lot of the general public are left thinking that it’s their fault that they don’t understand fine/contemporary/conceptual art, when actually, I think that fault rests squarely on the shoulders of artists and art institutions. I view the fundamental purposes of art as being to communicate messages, provoke interesting questions and elicit emotional responses. When art falls at the first hurdle and fails to communicate its message effectively, it’s ability to fulfill the other two suffers significantly. You shouldn’t need an arts education to be able to meaningfully connect with art. After all, you don’t need an English literature degree to enjoy books, or to be an Olympic athlete to enjoy sport. At a time when arts funding is being slashed we have to wonder why “non-arts-people” don’t hold the arts in high enough esteem to think twice about making cuts. Again, I think that this is the fault of the arts institutions for not focusing their attentions on accessible art that communicates clearly. The general public do not regard art as an indispensable part of their daily lives, and based on what you can see at the Baltic this month; why should they?

Special thanks to all my housemates for listening to my rage and super fun debate times.

This entry was published on January 20, 2012 at 6:31 pm. It’s filed under Reviews, What I Learnt Today and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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