It really does seem to be a case of all that glitters is gold for newly-crowned king of British art, Richard Wright, who has just been announced as the winner of this year’s Turner Prize.
The Turner Prize nets the winner £25k and each of the three runners-up, £5,000 each. The fact that it exists is cause for celebration in the first instance, because artists need all the help they can cling onto their vision in the face of financial hardship.
Looking slightly dazed, and nervously pawing his ear, the 49-year-old Glasgow-based artist stumbled towards the limelight at a ceremony in Tate Britain following the announcement by Carol Ann Duffy, the wonderfully anarchic Poet Laureate.
The fact that Wright has won such a prize with a piece described in The Guardian as ‘a subtle and unashamedly beautiful fresco in gold leaf’ gave me several reasons to be cheerful.
The Turner has been associated in the past with art which has left beauty behind at the back-door. The peak of the Young British Artist boom saw Madonna on stage effing and blinding as the likes of Damien Hirst’s headline-grabbing pickled shark sat staring out at oblivion.
Beauty and fine art seemed to have been stopped in its tracks. Where was the skill, people asked, baffled by the strange turn of events in the contemporary art world which was all about ideas as opposed to skill. More reason for (most) artists and viewers to feel marginalised.
Clad in tartan trews, Wright apparently opined that he was surprised and touched by the reaction of those who came to see his work at the Turner prize exhibition ‘perhaps expecting art to be awful’.
A positive reaction was exactly what he was seeking with his delicate gold fresco, which is due to be painted over with white emulsion when the Turner prize closes its doors on January 3.
Wright, who moved to Scotland as a child, and studied at the Edinburgh College of Art before completing an MFA at Glasgow School of Art, in the 1990s , was inspired to create his winning fresco by memories of travelling from Scotland to London to visit the then Tate Gallery on the overnight bus. One night to get to London, a day in the gallery looking at a single work, and a night back.
In making the untitled piece, he reverted to ancient techniques employed by Renaissance fresco-makers and the fact that his skill as a craftsman rose to the fore is heart-warming for those who feared that modern art had catapulted off to hell in a handcart.
The whole idea of the fragility of life and art is encapsulated beautifully in this work. Like an ice or sand sculpture, which gradually melts or get washed away by the tide, it echoes the fact that we live our life in the moment. We are all a series of memories, unique and fleeting.
When asked what he planned to do with his £25k winnings, he shrugged: ‘Like anyone else, I've got bills.’
Having been involved for the last couple of years with Scotland’s answer to The Turner Prize, The Aspect Prize, which nets the winner £15k and the runners-up, £5,000 each, it’s become abundantly clear to me that it’s this financial pressure which is the biggest bar to creativity for the majority of artists.
We have hundreds and hundreds of fantastic artists working away on their own in Scotland. It takes grit, determination and focus by the barrow-load to make a career for yourself as an artist and many fall by the wayside or take part-time or temporary work to make ends meet.
That being said, it is better now than it was in post-war Scotland. I met the Greenock-based artist James Watt (father of Alison Watt), recently. He has seen first-hand the changes which have been wrought on the creative ‘industry’ in Scotland in the last five decades.
When he was a young graduate of Glasgow School of Art, he told me, there were no role models to be found. ‘No-one was working as a full-time artist,’ he told me. Interestingly, he said that his most fruitful period as an artist came in the 1960s when he was teaching full-time, lecturing part-time at Glasgow School of Art, doing up an old wreck of a house and raising four children with his wife.
The fact that James’ own daughter has managed to carve out a career as a highly successful and highly rated full-time artist is testament to the fact that the times have indeed changed, but there is no doubt that independently-funded prizes such as The Turner, The Aspect and the Jolomo Award play a huge part in offering artists the means by which they can continue to practise.
I particularly like the fact the Aspect Prize has no upper age limit, so artists who are at a mature stage of their career can enter. As I get to know the shortlisted artists and their work, it's a real privilege to be granted an insight into their highly personal visual world. There is always a maturity in all Aspect finalists' work, regardless of actual age.
In times of economic hardship, our artists need support more than ever. But periods of hardship always brings a wave of joyful creativity in its wake. Just look at the boom in British Art in the post-war period, in which the likes of Lucien Frued, Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach all produced stunning work.
In introducing the Turner Prize at the ceremony last night, Tate director Nicholas Serota commented that in the current economic climate ‘museum visitor numbers are up and the theatres are full … in this climate the work of artists is more important than ever.’
He’s right. Our great artists should be cherished as they provide the prism through which we can view the kaleidoscope of life in all its pure gore and glory.
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- I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org (All work © Jan Patience)