Northwestern High School / Wikimedia Commons

Art at all ages: the Turner Prize should be open to everyone

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This year has seen the eradication of the rule that only permitted artists who are under the age of 50 to be given a chance of winning the Turner Prize, to allow artists of all ages to compete. But will this make it even harder for young artists to establish themselves, in an already very ambitious competition? I doubt it.

The prestigious Turner Prize was established in 1984, to draw attention to the contemporary British arts scene, and to assist the (then) Tate Gallery in obtaining new artwork. It was named after J.M.W Turner, a man hailed as an innovative and tendentious British artistic figure. Turner himself wanted to inaugurate an award for young artists, so he seemed an appropriate figurehead for the award when in 1991 an age limit was introduced to specifically celebrate upcoming and developing British artists. However, Turner continued to paint until he was well over the age of 50 – the first sign that the old rule was not compatible with the award’s original title.

Turner continued to paint until he was well over the age of 50 – the first sign that the new rule is not compatible with the award’s original title

Before the age limitation was introduced in 1991, only two out of the seven of the winners were over the age of 50 (Malcom Morley in 1984 and Howard Hodgkin in 1985). The installation of the age-limiting rule seemed completely unnecessary. What’s more, 53% percent of the Turner prize winners have been over the age of 30, whilst 40% were over the age of 40.

There has not been a single winner that has been under the age of 30 since the award was established over thirty years ago. Has the award from its very creation only concerned those who can no longer really be considered ‘young artists’?

The age limitation ignored the fact that artists can experience a break-through in their career at any age

It was about time that the Turner Prize said goodbye to its age limitation, as in today’s society huge steps are being taken to eliminate all forms of discrimination, including that associated with age. What’s worse is that the age limitation ignored the fact that artists can experience a break-through in their career at any age. For example, although he was well established as a talented artist in his youth, it was not until he was 74 years old that Henri Matisse first exhibited his much celebrated cut-out project, titled Jazz. If Matisse were a British artist alive today, he would without doubt be in with a chance of winning the Turner Prize with his second artistic wave, and shouldn’t be disqualified due to his age.

Ultimately, the issue which the Turner Prize needs to consider is not age but gender. Since its conception in 1984, only 21% of the award’s winners have been female, while a staggering 75% have been male (the remaining 4% were collectives). Although admittedly the number of female winners in the last ten years has risen, this huge imbalance needs to be equalised. It also acts as a fair illustration of the lack of female artwork in the Tate’s galleries. This disproportion will hopefully begin to be solved on 1 June, when Maria Balshaw takes up her post as the new Director of the Tate.

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