Here’s a simple cultural test. Does the name Grenville Davey mean anything to you? I thought not. Jeremy Deller? Me, neither. Tomma Abts? No again.
Now try these: José Maria Olazábel; Lee Westwood; Rory McIlroy? Yes, of course – Europe’s Ryder Cup-winning golfers, who triumphed earlier this week.
The first three names, on the other hand, are all past winners of the Turner Prize, the short-list for this week’s award also being announced earlier this week.
I’m not sure whether Britain has more art lovers or more golf lovers, and it is probably unfair to compare past winners (Granville Davey was all the way back in 1992) with the heroes of the week, but that’s not my point here. My point is this:
Viewing the latest contenders for the Turner Prize, at Tate Britain the other night, I couldn’t help thinking how weak it is this year, probably the weakest short-list there has been for a very long time, so weak that it crossed my mind that in this, the year of the dreadful Jubilee concert in front of Buckingham Palace, and the crass closing ceremony of the Olympics, do we really have as much talent in Britain as we keep telling ourselves? The Spice Girls standing on the roofs of London taxis could just as easily have been in the Turner Prize.
And it didn’t take me long to get from there to the idea that, one of the reasons the Ryder Cup always has the following it does, even without Europe’s dramatic fight-back that took place this year, is that it is not an annual shindig but a biennial one. And might it not be a good idea, right now, with this year’s Turner being so weak, to take a leaf out of the Ryder book, and make the Turner Prize a biennial rather than an annual event?
There’s plenty of precedent and sound reasons for doing so. Venice has its biennale, so does Paris. Beijing, Moscow, Havana and Dublin all have biennales and so, for that matter, does Stourbridge. If awards occur every other year, the tendency is avoided to turn out something just to meet the deadline, or the opportunity. There’s a distinct whiff of that this year with the Turner. I studied under R.D. Laing, the Scottish psychiatrist who is the subject of Luke Fowler’s video, and Laing was a lot less interesting, and considerably more mistaken, than this effort shows. And there used to be a cartoonist on The Sunday Times when I was there whose drawings were dead ringers for Paul Noble’s.
But the important point is that by making the Turner biennial it would be re-invigorated, the sense of theatre, drama and romance would be rekindled, the winners’ names would be better remembered, and we would stop automatically congratulating ourselves on how wonderful we are, and examine ourselves more closely
I don’t we why the change shouldn’t be applied to the Booker Prize also. Every year one of the judges laments proudly that he or she is having to read hundreds of books at all hours. If the Booker took place every other year, it wouldn’t necessarily double that load. Publishers might be forced to examine more closely what was worth submitting, and we might even see a reduction in submissions.
A biennial award is worth much more than twice that of an annual.