The art of deception

Modern-day art is no stranger to criticism of a scatological bent.

Ivan Massow was sacked as chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Art recently after he wrote that today’s arts elite was in danger of "disappearing up its own arse."

But when the government’s guardian of all things cultural describes the shortlist for the UK’s most high profile contemporary arts prize as something which fell out of a cow’s backside, one can not help but wonder what is going on.

Kim Howells, the minister for culture, gave us this year’s Turner Prize controversy, by scrawling his opinions on a comment card at the Tate Gallery, where the entries went on show this week.

"If this is the best British artists can produce then British art is lost," Howells wrote. "It is cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit."

Howells continued his tirade on a BBC Radio 4 interview yesterday with scathing comments about a coloured Perspex ceiling entered by artist Liam Gillick.

"I’ve sat under Perspex roofs like that in canteens since the mid-1960s," he said. "It’s not at all interesting. It’s very, very boring.

"I was so disappointed when I saw that exhibition - it infuriated me. The art establishment now ... the great judges and arbiters of taste, are completely out of touch with what art should be about."

If Howells is hoping to win the populist vote with his statement, which he must have been aware would make headline news, he has no doubt hit the spot with a public which is losing patience with the sort of artistic projects on which public money is often spent.

But it is not only those who are uneducated - and, understandably, uninterested - in contemporary art, who have welcomed Howell’s opinion that the Turner prize entries are, well, a load of crap.

Many among the arts cognoscenti were yesterday heaving a sigh of relief that someone of his stature had finally said out loud what many in the arts world have been murmuring for a very long time.

"The Turner Prize has always been a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, as far as I am concerned," says Charles Harris, the chairman of the Traditional Art Association, which was founded "to create an academic alternative to the Turner Prize".

"This has been going on with the Turner Prize for two decades, since it was inaugurated, and a lot of people in the arts world have been saying what Kim Howells has said for a long time.

"They recognise that it is just a cynical manipulation of commercial opportunity - making money for a few people and creating a market for a load of rubbish by calling it art."

Harris, who has enjoyed international acclaim for his traditionalist paintings and portraits, echoes the derision which the press and general public have long piled on the Turner Prize.

But in recent years it has found itself a whipping boy of the modern art establishment, with its avant-garde approach to what is good art.

In 1995, Damien Hirst won with a sheep pickled in formaldehyde and artist Tony Kaye once tried to submit a homeless steel worker as his entry for the competition.

Tracey Emin won fame - and derision - in 1999 with her unmade bed surrounded by soiled underpants, condoms and champagne corks while in 1998, avant-garde artist Chris Ofili won with a Virgin Mary made from elephant dung.

Last year’s winner was Glaswegian Martin Creed who won with his creation of a bare room with a light that switched on and off.

This year’s exhibits are no less unusual.

Among the other challengers for the prize is Fiona Banner’s Arsewoman In Wonderland gives the creator’s reaction to an adult film, written in shocking pink letters.

First shown at Dundee Contemporary Arts earlier this year, the 36-year-old’s work contains a series of sexually charged words cast in an 18in concrete block. These include "scumbag", "tit" and the C-word.

Howells could not find a nice word to say about the piece. (and he is not renowned for his tact. Last year, he described the royal family as "all a bit bonkers", and had to apologise after saying in a Commons debate that "the idea of listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell").

But, a man with a degree in art under his belt himself, he said of Banner’s work: "I thought it was a piece of pointillism (dot painting) when I walked into the gallery but it turns out to be her description of a porno movie."

But the minister for culture does not blame the artists, claiming they are simply products of their colleges and pawns of the cash-rich art establishment: "What we need are some real rebels and some real revolutionaries to blow them out of the water."

But Graham McKenzie, the director of the Contemporary Centre for Arts in Glasgow, which primarily presents installation-based art, says that Howells and the others are missing the point.

"Conceptual art is about taking things from our everyday lives and presenting them in a way that makes us think about our lives and the world around us.

"It is a very tired argument to say, well, I have one of those in my own home, so it is not art.

"A major point about conceptual art is that it takes everyday objects and uses them as a means of making a statement about the way we live."

However McKenzie does accept that conceptual art has certain commercial attractions.

"It is about energy, immediacy, and affordability. Maybe that is one reason that conceptual art has flourished in Glasgow, because there has not always been a lot of money around.

"It has allowed a lot of young talented artists to come through at a relatively early stage in their career and make a name for themselves.

"Some criticise conceptual art as being a lot less accessible than other forms of art - but I feel the opposite is true."

Nicholas Serota, the chairman of the Turner Prize judges and director of the Tate Gallery, which inaugurated the prize two decades ago, was not available for comment yesterday.

The gallery declined to comment on Howells’s comments. A spokeswoman for the Tate said only: "The purpose of the Turner Prize is to prompt discussion around new developments in contemporary art and we ask for comments in the reading room.

"Everyone who visits the exhibition is entitled to their view and we are pleased to say that many are very positive about this year’s exhibition."

But if the Turner wants to retain any credibility, it should perhaps take Howells’s criticism as a warning note that many are not impressed with what it applauds as great contemporary art.

As one Scottish art critic told The Scotsman: "The problem with the Turner is one of credibility.

"Many of these projects are completed with public money, and the public increasingly wants to know why their taxes are being spent on stuff to which they can not relate. Howell’s words might not be welcome by a few at the Tate but they will be music to the ears of the majority of the arts world."