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Why I Demonstrated Against the Turner Prize for Seven Years

Charles Thomson, co-founder of the Stuckists writes for 3:AM:

About three years ago I was debating the Turner Prize with Richard Cork, then art critic of The Times, on a London radio station. He is of course a fully paid up member of the art establishment and can be guaranteed to gush about the kind of work that I would happily flush. He is an adroit communicator and had wrong-footed me in a debate four years before on the Radio 4 Today programme (fortunately the presenter responded anyway), so I was on red alert this time round. “You say the same thing every year and just cash in on the Tate’s publicity. It’s very clever,” he began his attack. “Thank you, Richard,” I smiled sweetly. Not disheartened by my shameless transformation of his censure into a compliment, he aimed the knock-out blow: “You’re just promoting yourselves.”

I had a feeling that I was meant to say that wasn’t what we were doing at all (it is a curious facet of contemporary society that celebrity is highly desirable, but self-promotion is highly undesirable), and therefore be trapped into appearing obviously disingenuous. “Of course we’re promoting ourselves,” I responded with great enthusiasm and a touch of vehemence. “This is the art I believe in, and these are the artists I believe in. They’re the ones that should be in the Turner Prize, and, if they’re not, I’m quite happy to use the Prize to get them a wider audience.” He looked more than a little put out, and never regained his momentum. I felt content.

The Stuckists have demonstrated annually since 2000 outside Tate Britain against the Turner Prize, initially dressed as clowns (as the Tate was run by them). These events have become almost an integral part of the Prize, to the extent that they received more coverage on the Channel 4 programme Twenty Years of the Turner Prize than most of the nominees. They have been broadcast worldwide as well as on radio and TV in this country, and are regularly included in press reports. On one occasion The Guardian headlined their write-up ‘Turner winner riles the Stuckists’, which doubtless in turn riled the Turner winner.

This year various articles in this country and abroad carried my observation that current winner Tomma Abts’ paintings were like “doodles done by a lobotomised computer.” Momus observed “The Stuckists have won.” It is through the demos that the Stuckists have become a known phenomenon. Someone once asked me, “Is it your aim to end the Turner Prize?” “No,” I replied, “That’s the last thing I want.” During this year’s demo, a highly placed individual at the Tate, who shall remain nameless for now (it wasn’t Sir Nicholas Serota) thanked us for providing extra publicity for the museum, though this may have been a double-bluff, of course. However, if it wasn’t, then I am pleased our efforts are viewed so positively.

So is that it, then? Not exactly. I founded the Stuckists in 1999 (with Billy Childish, who left after two years) to promote the artists whose work — punk-originated figurative painting — was marginalised in the then-dominant conceptual art establishment (even painters like Chris Ofili had to pretend to be conceptual, in his case with elephant dung), and also to voice an opposition to conceptual art, particularly for its significant deficit of worthwhile concepts. The Turner Prize is a flagship of all that is askew with values in contemporary art, so it becomes an obvious arena to heighten that issue and voice dissent. I say what I believe. The Turner Prize is simply an obvious place to say it and to get it amplified, thanks to the Tate’s media machine.

On the basis that Turner was a radical artist, his name has been hijacked to give spurious credibility. He did not take up the new media which the Turner Prize espouses so enthusiastically. Photography was invented in his lifetime, but there is a significant lack of it in his oeuvre, not even a sailing ship collaged onto a stormy sea. The one artist who would not have been in danger of winning the Turner Prize is Turner. It needs to be pointed out, as does the sphincter-tightening narrowness of artistic vision which informs the judges year after year, suspiciously coinciding with the chairman of the jury being Sir Nicholas Serota year after year. The emperor is convinced of his fine clothes. It is only right to point out that we can see his scraggy scrotum and it’s a load of balls. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

Charles Thomson co-founded the Stuckists in 1999 with Billy Childish. In the early 80s he was a member of the Medway Poets, alongside Childish, Sexton Ming and, to a lesser extent, Tracey Emin.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 8th, 2006.