Martin Boyce, the Turner Prize and learning to love art


Posted by: Creative Times on December 06, 2011 12:03

When Martin Boyce accepted the Turner Prize last night, he made a brief but powerful comment about the importance of education. Chris Sharratt thinks he’s got to the heart of the public’s love/hate relationship with contemporary art.

Sometimes, it only takes a few words to get to the heart of the matter. Martin Boyce’s brief acceptance speech at last night’s Turner Prize award ceremony did just that. “When education is going through the wringer,” he said, “it is important to acknowledge the value of teachers.”

That shouldn’t be a particularly controversial thing to say, but of course in the current climate of austerity it is subtly political. The fact that it was said in the context of contemporary art lends it even more resonance.

When education is going through the wringer, it is important to acknowledge the value of teachers.

Why? Because despite all the good work that the Turner Prize has done to raise the level of public interest in, and debate around, contemporary art, the default position of much of the popular press and most of the British public, is still one of ridicule, either of the vitriolic or slightly patronising kind. In short, as Matthew Collings commented on Channel 4’s coverage last night, the appreciation of contemporary art involves a certain amount of education.

It also involves a willingness to invest time to look and to think. Experience suggests that many gallery visitors either aren’t willing to do this, or just don’t believe there’s any great value in it.

I saw this first hand when I visited Gateshead to review the Turner Prize show. It was the opening weekend and there was a wait to get in. We queued for around 10 minutes, offering a good opportunity to observe the crowds and overhear conversations. There was a buzz of expectation and plenty of good-natured chatter as we slowly edged closer to the first of the four rooms, featuring Martin Boyce’s installation.

And then, as the invigilator let us in, it suddenly felt like we were at the January sales rather than an art exhibition. There was a mini-stampede, an almost-sprint, a rush to briefly scan the room, mutter a few groans along the lines of “call that art” and “what’s it all about, then”, and move on. Many of the visitors spent less time in all four rooms than they had in the queue.

Of course, it’s nobody else’s business how much time someone decides to spend in an art exhibition, and in the case of the Turner Prize maybe they were just being terribly English, their speed an expression of politeness towards those who were still queuing to get in.

The point is, they were missing out – particularly on Martin Boyce’s work, which is so much about creating an atmosphere, a space for memory and contemplation.

Boyce’s art is rich in historical references to modernist design and architecture, and understanding this adds an extra dimension to it. But that doesn’t mean you have to know about Joel and Jan Martel’s concrete trees or Jean Prouvé’s library desk to get something out of viewing his work. It is cleverer and more beautiful than that.

You do, however, need to learn to look more slowly, to recognise that, with so much contemporary art, good things really can come to those who wait. Then you can dismiss headlines such as the Daily Mail’s ‘Who could mistake this rubbish bin for art?’ for the uneducated, self-inflicted ignorance it so clearly is. Because only when we appreciate the worth in learning, can we really recognise the value of teachers.

Image: Martin Boyce installation at BALTIC, photograph by Colin Davison

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