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Stop the vandals at the gate!

Since its foundation in 1984, the Turner Prize has stimulated widespread debate and a popular interest in contemporary art. Tate Britain director Stephen Deuchar said yesterday that last year’s prize drew a record 90,000 visitors.

Work by the four artists shortlisted for the £25,000 Turner Prize traditionally provides a target for those with axes to grind. And indeed, even those enthusiastic about contemporary art have often found that finalists in previous years conformed too heavily to the taste of an elite circle of curators and galleries.

But this year’s group, which goes on display today at Tate Britain, has bucked the trend. There is an unusual and powerful sense of beauty in the art works by Roger Hiorns, Lucy Skaer and Richard Wright.

And, odd man out Enrico David’s surreal group of lanky stuffed legs and humpty-dumpty shaped figures, has a wry, thought-provoking sense of humour. He uses a cast of characters to order his confused reactions to reality, thus performing psychoanalysis on himself.

Hiorns’ ash-coloured dust heaped on the floor has a haunting, almost apocalyptic feeling. When we learn that it is metal dust ground from an atomised passenger jet engine, the sense of mystery deepens. It morphs before our eyes into an exquisite shifting landscape in delicate shades of greys and blacks.

Wright’s vast wall painting, which will disappear forever when the show is over, invites contemplation as it evokes decorative designs by Rococo masters like Tiepolo as well as visionary elements drawn from artists like William Blake.

The Tate’s formidable trio of female interpreters, introducing the finalists, yesterday drew attention to the strong formal and psychological aspects of these works. But in addition, as a group, the artists have made a successful direct appeal to a sense of beauty combined with rather ominous undertones (the use of bovine brain matter, Skaer’s gigantic whale skeleton, for example) and the transformation of materials.

There is a sense of enigma, of foreboding, of things to come – which relates to the psychological climate of a Britain on the eve of massive social and cultural transformation. In the microcosm of artistic experimentation, the search for new languages and forms of communication outside and beyond the accustomed channels, a larger reality begins to emerge.

So, we must thank these artists who have eschewed the cheap thrills and rampant commercialism of recent years to explore new aspects of reality and imagination to expand the realm of human knowledge and perception.

At the other end of the cultural spectrum, far from the privileged spaces of the Tate and galleries in major “hubs”, educational institutions and local museums are struggling for their very existence. Local Tory authority leader Mike Freer says that his Barnet council in north London, “does not do culture”. And Broxtowe Council near Nottingham plans to cut £60,000 from a heritage centre which provides visitor and educational facilities for the DH Lawrence birthplace museum, which is the area’s major cultural attraction.

In London, in measures whose legality is under scrutiny, trustees at the Courtauld Institute of Art have sacked the staff of its world famous photographic libraries, in a desperate cost-cutting measure which means that some three million images will be withdrawn from public view.

Whilst glittering parties continue at private venues such as the Saatchi and Gagosian galleries and the global auction houses gamble in the markets, culture in other areas faces death by a thousand cuts. We need a leap in imagination in the field of social and political action to match the inspiration provided by the Turner Prize artists to stop the vandals before it is too late.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
6 October 2009

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