Inaccurate conception

The Turner Prize has created much controversy in the 19 years of its existence: it has been constantly disparaged by the tabloid media and prominent figures in both the world of art and politics. But has it become 'safe' in the year that even the Daily Mail has praised the four contestants' work? Not if you happen to be the government minister for culture, Kim Howells, who describes the works of art as "contemporary bullshit". Unfortunately this is also a prevalent view among the working class in regard not only to the Turner Prize, but also to art as a whole. This dismissive attitude - towards conceptual art in particular - is to be expected under capitalism. After all it is a system in which the development of working class men and women as fully rounded individuals is constantly retarded and where art, like everything else, is commodified and distorted in mass newspapers and TV programmes. As the tabloid red-tops and various critics vent their spleen at contemporary British artists in general and the Turner Prize in particular, this year's winner, Keith Tyson, is incorrectly and tellingly described by Luke Leitch of the Evening Standard as the "only artist to use paint". If the Standard's 'arts reporter' had bothered to look at Fiona Banner's work other than dismissively, as pornographic wordscapes, he might have detected the use of paint, albeit not in the conventional manner. But Leitch's lazy 'analysis' reveals much of the prejudice facing many artists currently working in Britain. When artists develop new ways of presenting their ideas, they expect to attract hostile criticism and misunderstanding, but that does not make their work disingenuous, unintelligent or lacking in sincerity. To adhere to established, conventional forms of representation is merely to wallow in the nostalgic concept of what is accepted as 'art'. Brian Sewell can do no better than: "This is the stuff of infant schools". Sewell's entrenched anal-retentive opinions are typical of the bourgeois establishment's notion of the function of art and artists in society. Not for them the Marxist view that art, in all its forms, should reflect the conditions and reality of society. They prefer their art to pay homage to a myriad of mystical, fanciful and romantic illusions, where the role of the masses has little or no validity. These dinosaurs of the art world take no account of the scientific and technological advances made during and after the industrial revolution. They remain forever transfixed in an age where art was and still is a commodity imbued with absurdly disproportionate value. They rail against artists who invite a considered appraisal of the real world around them and therefore challenge the consensual acceptance of the minor role played by ordinary people. They refuse to acknowledge that in the plastic arts, painting and sculpture are no longer paramount in the artist's repertoire. In the age of reproduction there are many more mediums available to artists. The advent of photography and of course cinema have made art much more widely and cheaply available for the majority of people. Catherine Yass was one of the artists who did not use paint, but a series of photographs and two films - apparently unacceptable to the Standard. Yass created a beautiful aesthetic by lowering a camera slowly on a crane in Canary Wharf in the mist: shapes appear and gradually become more and more defined. This, without the oil paints that Turner himself would have used, essentially attempts to achieve what artists like Turner in his time did: it creates a sense of atmosphere and gives the viewer a sensation through visual aesthetics. Liam Gillick's work, the least favoured at the bookmakers and most favoured by the critics, on the other hand was less about a pleasurable aesthetic. His panels and architectural drawings are like that of the interior of a corporate building - something that we are all familiar with. The works that he showed for the Turner Prize give very little information as to what ideas he is trying to get across, but when interviewed he suggests that we look at corporate society in perhaps a more sinister light: some critics go as far as to see premonitions of catastrophe or even revolution! Fiona Banner's work deals mainly with pornography. She has created a massive tableau, in which she describes in words what she has seen in a porn movie. It is an interesting piece that is quite ironic, given the detailed and interesting descriptions she provides - porn is generally badly produced and lacking in such detail. One piece, entitled 'Arsewoman in Wonderland', is written in pink, so its reflection of the viewer gives the appearance of blushing. Other pieces are also based on writing. Some look at its structure without the use of words: the punctuation marks create what Banner describes as the "architecture of speech". Keith Tyson, the winner of this year's prize, looked at science and also at moments in time. His work was packed with information, theories, notes and doodles - to absorb all the information he presents would possibly have taken years. He looks at the natural world and the human-made world. Again this is not something new: the link between art and science has been strong since ancient times. Tyson's work was described by one critic as similar to "what a present-day Leonardo da Vinci would have come up with if he'd dropped a couple of acids". What then can we take from the Turner Prize and contemporary art in general? It is the need to appreciate the dialectical nature of art: learn from the great masters, much beloved by Howells et al, and move forward with the available technology and media, creating art forms that reflect the concrete reality of today's society. Although modern methods of mass reproduction have to some extend democratised the arts, they can frequently appear to be part of a different world from that inhabited by the working class. Yet art is not something which can be separated from society. It must be seen for its use value, not as just another commodity. Its purpose is to educate, to communicate and to entertain. Sarah McDonald and Ronnie Mejka