The Turner Prize for Woke Posturing

Giving the prize to all four nominees was pure virtue-signalling.

Wendy Earle


The surprise decision by the jury of the 2019 Turner Prize for Contemporary Art to award it to all four nominated artists reveals an art elite revelling in its self-defined moral high ground. It reveals an art world eager to demonstrate its willingness to deploy art – and expertise in the arts – to make the world a supposedly better place. Led by the Tate, the arts sector is effectively declaring itself to be a new papacy of social-justice activism ‘for the many, not the few’. The award ceremony, just before the General Election that will decide the future of Brexit, was the perfect launchpad for this new moral mission.

The most prestigious art prize in the UK, the Tate Turner Prize was set up 35 years ago to raise the profile of contemporary British art. It has popularised a controversial view of art – the artists who are nominated are often derided for ‘debasing’ art. The prize now celebrates artists more for their focus on social and political issues than for the quality or inventiveness of their art.

But this year’s jury decision, announced at Margate’s vintage amusement park, Dreamland, has led some commentators to worry that the prize is now effectively redundant. Whether or not this is the case, what we saw last Tuesday was definitely an assertion of the art elite’s sense of moral superiority. Who cares about prizes when they have a world to save from itself!

The four artists in the competition this year, chosen to exhibit at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, are united by their shared ‘commitment to urgent political causes’. Their works express ideas about gender politics, concern about the displacement and exploitation of migrants, and a general contempt for Britain and the West. Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo and Tai Shani did not know each other previously, but, having met and seen each other’s work, they decided they did not want one single issue to win the prize. They asked the judges to make the award collectively.

In a letter to the jury, they wrote: ‘At this time of political crisis in Britain and much of the world, when there is already so much that divides and isolates people and communities, we feel very strongly motivated to use the occasion of the prize to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity – in art as in society.’

The putative claim that art can change the world has transmogrified into an assertion that artists know what is good for us. The artists used the platform of the Turner Prize to express their explicit hostility to the current government in the lead-up to the General Election, with one of them even sporting a prominent ‘Tories Out’ pendant. With the General Election imminent, the artists’ statement, read out by Helen Cammock, was a thinly veiled condemnation of Brexit voters, describing ‘an era marked by the rise of the right and fascism, racism and ideologically driven brutality’ and ‘climate chaos’.

The artists’ protestations were hardly a brave challenge to the status quo. Rather, they reflect a consensus in the art world that ordinary people, not blessed with artistic intelligence, don’t know what is good for them. The top dogs of the art world wholeheartedly endorsed the nominees’ posturing. The jury’s decision to accept their proposal, the opening speech of Tate director, Maria Balshaw, and the comments of Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue, who presented the award, all attest to the belief among the art-world elite that only the arts can fix British society. No surprise, then, that the audience leapt to their feet cheering in delight, and media commentators gushed as Cammock read out the statement.

The 2019 Turner Prize award ceremony demonstrates the weaponisation of contemporary art. Contemporary artists may originally have set out to make us question what we see and how we see it, but the art establishment has turned art into a tool for a politically charged moralising activism. It is no longer art created to please the eye and challenge or console the spirit, but propaganda for identity politics and climate-change correctness. Time to rename it the Turner Prize for Woke Posturing.

Wendy Earle is convenor of the Academy of Ideas Arts and Society Forum.

Picture by: Getty.

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Thomas Smith

25th December 2019 at 12:15 pm

“the art establishment has turned art into a tool for a politically charged moralising activism. It is no longer art created to please the eye and challenge or console the spirit, but propaganda for identity politics and climate-change correctness.” I’m interested in looking at this from the perspective of the categories created by Walter Benjamin, in his “Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction.” I share his view that art must become politicized by communists–his example I believe was Chaplin’s Modern Times and the Great Dictator–for otherwise it becomes the fascist transformation of politics into art (Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will). But this is something really scary, something in between, a strange hybrid, that might just have Benjamin rolling in his grave. This is the colonization of art by a neo-fascist politics. We know this is fascist art because it’s as dry as dust–nothing like Chaplin!

Michael Lynch

9th December 2019 at 11:48 pm

The ultimate insult in this age of Tosserism came when they awarded Dylan the Noble Prize for Literature. He was the unimaginative plank that provided the musical background for the Hippy Trippy movement of the sixties. These freaked out loonies, tripped out on LSD most of the time, took the Beatles ‘All You Need is Love’ way too literally for their own good. This was the start of the rot in the West and we have been bowing and sucking up to successive cycles of youth culture ever since. Each generation becoming progressively more absurd than the last. It seems that working class people can move on pretty quickly from the influences of their youth, however, the middle classes somehow can’t and it taints their thinking as they age. A strange phenomenon especially given that they think their higher educated status gives them some sort of edge over ordinary people.

Geoff Cox

20th December 2019 at 5:06 pm

“… we have been bowing and sucking up to successive cycles of youth culture ever since. Each generation becoming progressively more absurd than the last.” Great comment.

When Joan Baez was peddling her anti-Vietnam message, there were a series of cartoons run to lampoon her called Joanie – Phoney. I like to use the same word “phoney” to describe much of Bob Dylan’s output. He surely is over-rated, but amongst his vast catalogue there are some great songs – Hurricane and Lily, Rosemary & The Jack of Hearts both on one LP. And at least Joan Baez can really sing!

Dean 61

9th December 2019 at 8:38 pm

Contemporary art has become a monumental bore-fest. Cutting edge? Challenging? Not a chance. It’s just a bunch of log-rolling poseurs with a penchant for purple hair dye peddling the latest identitarian applied nonsense. I comfort myself in the knowledge that it will surely disappear up its own intersectional sphincter in due course.

Michael Lynch

9th December 2019 at 11:52 pm

It surely will because the Woke try to be all things to all things and that just ain’t possible in the long run. What a bunch of self righteous pricks.


9th December 2019 at 7:05 pm

Much to think about here.

I have no knowledge of any of the ‘artists’ who won the prize, or of their work, but for a few years in a row – probably three or four – a few friends and I used to go along to see the shortlisted entries. But the joke palled and we decided that we had better things to spend our money on. They certainly used to charge you to get in, which seemed a gratuitous imposition; I suppose that they still do. Can’t say I remember any of the finalists’ names, or any of their entries. No doubt most are now cluttering up a warehouse that could be better used storing empty paint tins or bent nails. (Maybe some of them were empty paint tins or bent nails? Since ‘art’ became so ‘cutting edge’ and ‘relevant’ its not been easy to keep track.)

Yet my chief thought is that judging an art prize is necessarily and inevitably subjective. There can be no objective standard. Take J M W Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, surely familiar to everybody who posts on here. Objectively, it can be described as a bad picture. There are numerous flaws, starting with the sun, which is setting in the East! Yet I, and probably everybody else who ever posts on here, would take infinitely more pleasure from having the Fighting Temeraire hanging on my wall than a whole warehouse full of the most ‘cutting edge’ and ‘relevant’ output of recent Turner Prize finalists. My judgement is a subjective one, but it is every bit as valid as the judgement of the Turner Prize panel. Only generations of subjective judgements can determine what is – and is not – great art, or indeed art at all. Meanwhile, the Turner Prize certainly does not cut it. It’s a national joke, albeit one that has seriously palled.

Mark Houghton

9th December 2019 at 4:15 pm

I wonder if they’d have won if their political views had been seen as ‘problematic’?

cliff resnick

9th December 2019 at 3:54 pm

As a mere and lowly painter of landscapes, the Turner Prize is as exciting and noteworthy as Exchange and Mart. I just saw the headlined, speed read the first two sentences and deciding “I’m not really interested” For me the market for exploiting contemporary art is an irrelevance. Not interested got better things to do. If the article is having a dig at art “tw**ts” then I suggest that you should stop wasting your time and get out more! Leave the imbeciles to their own phantasmagorias, their beyond help! Still I enjoyed writing this!

Garreth Byrne

9th December 2019 at 1:39 pm

Art & inspiration; inspiration & perspiration; aesthetics & beauty; technique & craft; tradition & innovation; modernisation & the legacy of the past; communication & meanings; artists’ intentions & public responses; criticism & critique; regional, national and civilizational art forms – all these and other considerations tend to be absent from formal reviewing of the Turner Prize in the mass media. Public shrugging means that more members of the public go to the cinema, watch television or go to concerts and variety theatres for their art highs. Moaning about the Turner Prize is nowadays as ritual as the annual moaning about the Eurovision song contest.

Ven Oods

11th December 2019 at 10:01 am

Since I’m led to believe that it now includes Israel and Australia(!), surely the ‘Eurovision’ is up for the Misnomer of the Year Award?

Iain Litenment

9th December 2019 at 1:12 pm

Good grief! The moral certainty of the liberal elite is untouchable. The rest of us are seen as the barbarians.

Neil John

9th December 2019 at 12:36 pm

“Yes, but is it art?”

Having dealt with a number of contemporary ‘artists’ in training, as well as being piss artists, and taking the piss artists, most have little sense of self preservation, nor the world beyond their often extremely left wing purview. Almost all turn out as never been or going to be, so cling onto whatever tiny shard of recognition gifted to them, their relevance to those actually struggling with ‘real’ life issues is equally tiny.

Give me a weekend of adventure with the ‘artists rifles’ anytime over this woke award bollocks.

Ven Oods

9th December 2019 at 10:07 am

I don’t care about the Turner prize, but am rather pissed off that the great man’s name is associated with an annual display of king’s-new-clothes bollocks.
If only they would rename it the Hirst, or the Emin, then I really wouldn’t give any kind of a shit about it.

Michael Lynch

10th December 2019 at 1:47 pm

Indeed, I always remember my dear old Dad being bemused by Emin’s Bed piece. He had me in stitches when he asked how on earth would someone go about hanging it over the mantelpiece! His language was obviously more colorful.

Jim Lawrie

9th December 2019 at 9:39 am

The artists are nominated and in this case that has clearly caused a severe outbreak of the great man complex.
The Tate were infected long ago and are delighted to have their award taken so seriously, rather than the art itself.

The artists in question could have declined the nomination and let their work stand or fall on its own merits.

Stephen J

9th December 2019 at 7:54 am

As someone who likes to think that my artistic pursuit in photography is worthwhile if only for my state of mind, I am often amused by eccentric folk who think similarly, but also think that everyone else should have the benefit of their pursuit.

Art is exercise for the right brain, and politics is very much about the left brain, logic, bottom lines etc..

What I am trying to say is that real artists, don’t care about prizes, so they would not try to win one in the first place, they wouldn’t even enter the competition.

James Rooks

9th December 2019 at 7:53 am

Pass me the bucket! I bet none of them donated the prize money to a worthy cause though!

Liz Davison

9th December 2019 at 7:37 am

Hilarious. How many people care about this prize for pseudo anyway?

Philip Humphrey

9th December 2019 at 7:37 am

Listen to almost any BBC arts programme such as Front Row on radio four and you’ll hear endless artists and arty people talking about identity politics. How the latest novel, composition or work of art “breaks barriers” about race, gender and identity, how they “identify” with minorities and lost peoples from history. Of course it’s all false and claptrap, in reality they are a highly privileged and relatively wealthy group and their ability to “empathise” and “identify” with the downtrodden is laughable. Seems to me the simple truth is that they are exploiting, not “identifying”. And that there is a total lack of imagination or anything interesting to say about the world, which is why they’re stuck going on endlessly about identity politics.

Dominic Straiton

9th December 2019 at 6:16 am

I dont see four winners. I see four losers.

John B Dublin

9th December 2019 at 6:40 pm

Hilarious. I wish I could up-vote that.

Ian Wilson

9th December 2019 at 5:37 am

It’s depressing, but only in it’s predictability. In reality, who cares? Outside of narrow art circles, I bet no-one has ever heard of these people, and never will again.

Ellen Whitaker

9th December 2019 at 3:12 am

Very depressing. Get ready for a new version of Socialist Realism.

Jim Lawrie

9th December 2019 at 9:49 am

Might this quartet now produce a collective work to mark the occasion of their passage into the corridors of artistic immortality?

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