by Colin McIntosh
The Turner Prize, awarded annually to a British artist under the age of 50, is traditionally an occasion for media commentators to shake their heads disapprovingly. “My five-year-old daughter could do that!” is a typical reaction to the prizewinners’ work, as is “Is this art?” The latter question was particularly appropriate for this year’s shortlisted works, which included an opera performance and a recreation of a multimedia study centre, complete with fictional study materials and a photocopier. The winner, announced last month, was an urban regeneration project.
The prize has been associated with the conceptual movement in art. Conceptual art, also called conceptualism, gives particular importance to the ideas conveyed by a piece of art, as opposed to the aesthetic or material aspects. Previous winners in this vein include Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, famous respectively for their pickled shark and unmade bed. Such works are called installations: a form of modern sculpture where the artist uses sound, movement, or space as well as objects in order to make an often temporary work of art.
New words recently added to the Cambridge dictionary connected with contemporary art include some that refer to people working in the world of art, as well as the work they do. A gallerist is a person who owns an art gallery or who shows and sells artists’ work in art galleries. Another important job in the business is that of curator, who is the person in charge of putting on an exhibition, choosing the works of art, and so on, in other words curating the exhibition. The word exhibition, frequently used in British English, tends to be replaced by exhibit in American English. (Exhibit in British English refers exclusively to an individual object from the exhibition.) An exhibition (or exhibit) devoted to the work of just one artist is called a one-woman show (or one-man show if the artist in question is male). Media chosen by contemporary artists include modelling clay (US modeling clay), screen prints, and the catch-all mixed media (the use of various different methods or materials to create a work of art, for example paint, plaster, and textiles).
If you find modern art confusing, you may like to reflect on the possibility that the artist doesn’t want you to understand. This is demonstrated by the fact that the most common title for contemporary works of art is Untitled. In other words, the artist seems to be saying, work it out for yourself – see if I care.