The Turner Prize shortlist has been announced, to the usual accompanying grumbles. Which is only to be expected; the prize was devised to get people talking about contemporary art and it would hardly be doing its job if it didn’t provoke controversy and complaint.
Some of this year’s griping has had a rather odd flavour, though. Where in the past the nominees have often been dismissed as too brash and scary and silly, there’s a sense that, this year’s artists, frankly, are all getting on a bit. All four are in their forties and one of them, alarmingly, is 49, which is as old as you can be and still be considered. ‘It’s odd that a bunch of quadrenarians should make up the entirety of the shortlist,’ writes Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts editor. ‘What new development is any of this lot heralding?’
In fact, as Gompertz goes on to acknowledge, two of the last three Turner prizewinners have been 49. There is absolutely no reason to assume that either brilliance or the ability to take new directions in art is confined to young artists. Whatever his views about this year’s nominees, to form them on the basis of their age, or even to link their radicalism to their age, is ridiculous.
But why a cut-off age of 50 in the first place? Of course, people who want to set up prizes can do so on any basis they like, so long as they can get funding and publicity. But these days (the Turner started in the early 1990s) new awards are usually established in the teeth of established and commercial success, to redress imbalances. The Orange Prize, for instance, which is open only to women writers, was a response to the fact that men overwhelmingly win the Booker Prize. A woman’s name on the front cover of a book seems automatically to put it in a more trivial category in judges’ heads.
The Orange Prize’s exclusion of men has always been much more controversial than the Turner Prize’s insistence that ‘new’ artists be under 50. This is mad: there is proven under-representation of women in serious literary prizes, but you could hardly say the same thing about fortysomething artists and the art establishment. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that an artist approaching his or her 50th birthday might be at the peak of his or her recognition. So the Turner is hardly a prize for young artists. Then why have an age limit at all?
When Matisse was in his early 80s, he’d had heart disease, a lung disorder and gastro-intestinal problems and was often confined to bed. The sapping of his physical strength seemed to lead to a new burst of creative energy. He started working with cutouts, making radical work that closed the gap between colour and form.
Michelangelo began work on the Florentine Pieta at 70. Willem de Kooning (who himself went on working after he developed Alzheimer’s, producing paintings of museum quality) once recalled that when Titian was 90 years old, his arthritis was so severe that he had assistants tie paintbrushes to his hands. ‘But he kept on painting virgins in that luminous light, like he’d just heard about them. Those guys had everything in place, the Virgin and God and the technique, but they kept it up like they were still looking for something.’
And they were. In a Colombia University study of 213 older artists aged between 62 and 97 (with a median age of 74) in New York, Joan Jeffri found that 56% of them thought they had already made their best work. More interestingly, that means that 44% of them felt they hadn’t.
The cut-off age for the Turner Prize implies that people can be doing thrilling work at 49, but it becomes irrelevant by the time they’re 51. The existence of this daft rule presumably has its roots in the same sort of thinking that assumes artists in their forties can’t be doing anything radical, because they’re, well, in their forties.
Artists have careers that are differently shaped from those of many people. There is so much more that is contingent about their success (by which I mean not just public recognition, but their ability to create). It is perfectly possible that, at any point, the collision of their own experience and the world could trigger some new direction. As Muhammed Ali once said, ‘The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.’
The literary magazine Granta sponsors a not dissimilarly ageist prize to the Turner, for Best of Young British and Best of Young American Novelists Under 40. I remember hearing Ian Jack, then Granta’s British editor, being interviewed on radio by the novelist Philip Hensher when the last batch was chosen. Hensher questioned whether the ‘under 40’ rubric wasn’t unfair to late-flowering writers, and suggested it would make more sense to select novelists who had, say, been published for the first time in the last decade. Ian Jack agreed it would, but said he was stuck with the prize he’d inherited.
Hensher is one of the judges of this year’s Turner Prize. I don’t suppose its organizers will see sense and lift the age limit, to look for innovative art wherever it may come from. They’re probably stuck with what they’ve inherited. So perhaps what we should be pressing for is another prize that would honour an artist who is doing new things after the age of 50 – whether a newcomer or someone who has been making art all their lives and has discovered, like Matisse, a new and brilliant direction. It would be at least as much of a talking point, and make at least as much sense.