Why have so few women won the Turner Prize? Sue Gilbert argues that the award’s youth has not protected it from sexism in the art world
The Turner Prize comes around every year, like Christmas or your dental check-up, depending on your opinion of contemporary art. And every year it provides a field day for a few pig-ignorant journalists. In 2007, the prize was presented in Liverpool, to show a fair-minded lack of London-centredness.
2007’s nominees for the prize certainly seemed more relevant to the awkward times we live in than in some previous years: Zarina Bhimji is a talented and politically aware photographer from Uganda, Nathan Coley creates installations on religious themes, Mike Nelson does obscure things based around a gang who met up in Iraq during the first Gulf War and the winner Mark Wallinger was nominated for his recreation of a protest against the Iraq war which was suppressed by the police in London.
What has all this got to do with feminism? You may well ask, after all the Turner prize was won by a woman in 2006. Tomma Abts was even a painter, which really confused the tabloids. What, a painter? No flashing lights? No cows pickled in formaldehyde? No tents?
No tents. That’s part of the problem. Everybody knows that Damien Hirst won the Turner Prize with cows cut in half and pickled in formaldehyde. Just like everybody knows that Tracey Emin won the Turner prize with her tent, embroidered and appliquéd with the names of all her lovers, right? Sorry, no. Tracey never won.
The Turner Prize, awarded for an artist’s contribution to contemporary art over the space of one year, has been dolled out annually since 1984. It has been won by all kinds of artists: Gilbert and George, Anthony Gormley, Richard Long, Anish Kapoor. We all know about Hirst, and then there was Greyson Perry, a hugely talented potter who accepted his prize wearing the most outrageous frock.
So this is obviously the problem. Where are the women? In the 23-year history of the prize, women have won just three times. The first, in 1993, was Rachel Whiteread with her piece, House, a concrete cast of the interior of a terraced house which was due for demolition. Whiteread’s Turner Prize award stands, which is more than House does. Despite its potential as a tourist attraction – people were already turning up in large numbers to admire and photograph it – House was demolished by a Neanderthal council, along with the first hint that the Turner Prize might be waking up to its sexist bias.
Three years later, the Turner prize apparatchiks appeared to stir briefly and notice that there might be a problem, because they actually selected the only ever all-female shortlist for the prize. A shortlist of some kind has been a feature of all the prizes; between four and six artists, or pairs of artists like Gilbert & George, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Jane and Louise Wilson, have been selected every year, except for 1990, when due to a cock-up (pun intended) with funding there was no prize.
There have been five all-male shortlists, but most of the other lists have included one or maybe two woman. In 1999, the year the Wilson twins were included for their “sophisticated approach to photography and video installation”, they were accompanied by Tracey Emin, so that actually made three women. A man still won, film maker Steve McQueen. He’s black, so we probably shouldn’t make an issue of it. He doesn’t, in his own work, make an issue of his race and anyway he’s the third non-white man ever to win. I just wonder, when is a black woman is going to get there?
Of the four artists selected for the women-only shortlist in 1997, three broadly come under the heading of sculptors: Christine Borland, Angela Bulloch and Cornelia Parker. The fourth woman was Gillian Wearing, an artist working with photographs and video. Wearing won with a video piece of a group of police men and women who were required to sit still for the whole 60 minutes of unedited video. Titled, ’60 Minutes Silence’, this video was a bit dull unless you waited to the end, when the was a huge and highly entertaining explosion of voices and activity. The tabloids were baffled, until they decided it was a scandalous fraud and revealed that the police personnel in the video were actually actors – but nobody else cared. At least a woman had won the thing!
We had a wait of another nine years for Toma Abts to become the next woman to win.
Obviously, I’m not going to argue that women are no good at art so they don’t get nominated. Some stunning women artists have been nominated but have never won – Tracey Emin is the obvious omission. My personal favourite is Cornelia Parker, famous for filling a garden shed with brick-a-brack from car boot sales, blowing it up and displaying the results in an extraordinary installation.
Maybe the point is that art shouldn’t be separated into genders. Plenty of artists past and present have rejected the idea that they are ‘women’ artists, and proclaim themselves to just be artists. This began with Georgia O’Keefe, the US painter of desert abstractions and huge, sexualised flowers and good on her, good on all of them. There’s many a thesis been written on this, though I believe that art can very often be identified by genders, Tracey Emin’s work is essentially female, whilst the Chapman’s work, often violently disturbing, is definitely male. On the other hand, Cornelia Parker and Greyson Perry both create work where the sex of the artist isn’t obvious, even from a close examination of their creations, but Greyson still won and Cornelia didn’t.
I can’t help coming back to the statistics here. In its 23-year life, The Turner Prize has been won by three women and twenty-one men. There have been 30 women nominated during this time, which doesn’t sound bad, except that there have been 74 men, so statistically women have a far smaller chance of winning, quite apart from the quality of their work. Yet there ain’t any lack of hugely talented young women artists out there, not to mention numerous equally inspiring artists who just happen to be women.
I’m not the first to notice this disparity. In 1997, the feminist group Fanny Adams staged a protest, but was largely ignored and today the only protest surrounding the Turner Prize is orchestrated every year by the Stuckists, a group setting out to debunk the pretension surrounding both the prize and much of contemporary art. Their protests are anarchic, in a naughty-but-civilised kind of way, with impolite-ish placards, inflatable dolls, custard pies and their own alternative, the ‘Not the Turner Prize Awards’. However the Stuckists don’t seem to have a specifically political agenda and certainly not a feminist one. They mainly represent a bunch of disgruntled painters.
While, as painters, the Stuckists may have a point about pretension ruling much of the Turner Prize selection process, I believe that women are capable of being just as pretentious as men, and we have every right to be pretentious if we want! Tomma Abts’ little abstract paintings are dull to the point of pretension. There’s plenty of art around that is unpretentious and that’s fine too. The place of pretentiousness in art is another argument for a different place.
What’s the most pretentious work to win the Turner prize? Well that could become another competition, but it was almost certainly by a man. My nomination is Martin Creed’s 2000 offering, ‘The Lights Going On and Off’, which was exactly what it said on the tin. I know what Creed was demonstrating with the piece, he was trying to put up two fingers at accepted methods of exhibiting art, but wasn’t it boring? Anyway this particular idea was hardly new, flashing lights on and off featured in two Surrealist exhibitions before 1950, to the confusion of exhibition visitors who were already baffled enough by fur covered teacups and tables with birds’ feet. These were both by Swiss surrealist Meret Oppenheim, a hugely versatile artist who also happened to be a woman.
Marcel Duchamp was first to blow a raspberry at stuffy exhibitions when he offered a urinal to an exhibition of contemporary art in 1917 – and he wasn’t being pretentious; it was largely meant to be a slightly crude joke. What isn’t generally known is that Duchamp had a female collaborator. She went under the unlikely name of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Elsa was only a baroness through a very brief marriage, but she clung defiantly to the title and her art was even more defiant. She was another Dadaist, a performance artist who was frequently arrested for her art. She was also friend of Duchamp and they certainly worked together; her contribution to the joke was a sculpture consisting of a dirty piece of cast iron plumbing, which she named ‘God’.
This probably blasphemous work has been described as a sister piece to Duchamp’s much more famous urinal. The point of my argument here is that today very few people have even heard of Elsa, while Duchamp is described everywhere as the originator of modern conceptual art, leading directly to Hirst and so on. Despite her fabulous name, the Dada Baroness has been written out of art history.
Women artists – not to mention artists who happen to be women – are still being written out of the story of art today. Even worse, they are not being allowed into it in the first place and, in Britain, the Turner Prize is a major culprit. The Tate presents the Turner Prize show every year and their website has a couple of brief paragraphs on the issue, in which the institution blames male domination in art schools, galleries and museums. This excuse implies that art institutions are bound to be lagging behind modern life in their representation of women artists, because they always have!
Even if I was to agree that the Tate has a point, which I don’t, why should this be an acceptable excuse for the Turner Prize? It is still a young thing, only 23 years’ old. It should be out partying with Tracey! Why is it already stuck in the mud of blatant sexism and blaming the institutions? Why should the effects of institutional sexism in the arts be used as an excuse for not recognising the huge contribution being made by women to contemporary art? Why don’t the Turner Prize organisers look harder for women artists? We all know they are out there, pretentious or not.