Every year the Turner Art Prize has people arguing, ‘but is it art?’ This year’s winner, Richard Wright, won the prize for a work of ephemera painted on a wall.

This assembly looks at the history of the prize, Richard’s work and looks at both sides of the ‘modern art’ movement.

His piece of work will be on display until 3rd January 2010 – and then painted over with white emulsion.


Last week artist Richard Wright won an art competition called the Turner Prize. It’s a competition for British artists and the work they have done over the previous year. Because the prize is awarded to current artists, their work is described as ‘modern’. They don’t always produce paintings.

Let’s backtrack a moment – how can an art competition not be about looking at paintings? Well, ‘modern art’ differs from traditional paintings; it’s usually more experimental and often uses a variety of different techniques and materials and where the idea or concept is more important than the finished work – in other words, how it makes you feel and what it makes you think. So sometimes the work of art is a sculpture, sometimes it’s a large object that we can walk around, sometimes it’s a video installation, and sometimes it’s a painting.

The story of the Turner Prize
The first Turner Prize was awarded in 1984. The idea was to highlight the work done by British artists and to bring them to the wider attention of the public.

It is called the ‘Turner’ in order to honour the famous British painter, Joseph Mallard William Turner (1775-1851) who is best known for oil paintings of landscapes and seascapes. [Show picture]

He’s a good choice to represent modern artists because his early paintings were laughed at by the general public. In fact one critic called Turner’s landscapes ‘pictures of nothing, and very alike’.

Another said Turner’s ‘foregrounds are comparative blots, and faces of figures without a feature being expressed’. Now, of course, they are among the most loved of British collections.

Lots of people visit the Tate Gallery in London in order to see the Turner Prize work displayed, just a couple of rooms away from where JMW Turner’s paintings hang.

From the very beginning the Turner Prize has been criticised and argued about because some people say it’s just not proper art.

Let’s have a look at some of the past winners:

Yes, it’s quite a broad mix of ‘art’, isn’t it? But is an unmade bed ‘art’? Why do you think the judges thought that was worthy of showing in an art gallery – and of winning the prize? [Take suggestions] It’s a mystery to many of the general public.

What would JMW Turner made of it all? He certainly hoped that money he left to the British people would be used to help support young British artists. Although his wishes didn’t come true, the prize is named after him . But then some people said that artists like Tracey Emin were giving British art a bad name!

In fact some of the works have been so odd that some people view the Turner Prize as nonsense, so they set up a rival art prize called… The Turnip Prize. This year the prize was won by a man calling himself Frank Van Bough – which probably isn’t his real name. His piece of artwork was a pair of Y-fronts!

But this year, it’s all been a bit different.

Richard Wright’s story
[Show picture] This rather lovely, delicate gold design is by the artist Richard Wright.

How did Richard create his masterpiece? First of all he drew it on paper, then he pinned the paper to the gallery wall and pricked it through with pins so that the image was transferred to the wall. This is called making a ‘cartoon’ and is the same technique used by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci. He then spread some weak glue onto the design (a bit like the ‘glue’ on a Post-It note) and then ‘painted’ a design onto the wall, but instead of using paint he used very fine leaves of real gold, a bit like glitter. It’s hard to make designs with gold leaf: the thin leaves of gold easily flutter away and can get stuck to the brush. Plus the fact that gold leaf is VERY expensive, too.

Of course, you have probably already worked out the problem with Richard Wright’s creation – he applied it directly onto the walls of the art gallery in London. How can it be moved now?

[Take suggestions]

Those are all very inventive suggestions, but the fact is that his work of art will simply be painted over with white paint when the exhibition ends. People looking at his work of art now say that it looks like a mirage – something that might disappear at any moment, so perhaps it is appropriate that it will one day be painted over. But what a sad loss, too. How does he feel about his work being destroyed one day?

‘To see a work knowing that it will not last emphasises that moment of its existence. Sometimes I feel a sense of loss; sometimes of relief.’ (1)

But for Richard the most important reward is how much ordinary people have liked his work. He expected that many of them came to the Turner Prize exhibition ‘expecting the art to be awful. That [positive reaction is] what I wanted to happen. It’s not about winning the prize.’

Richard Wright’s win is certainly popular. The Daily Mail newspaper, which has historically been no fan of modern art, had a headline that read, ‘Is this a Turner for the better? ‘Prize winner Richard Wright shocks the world with actual art’! Which says it all.

JMW Turner was laughed at when he first produced his misty, foggy paintings and yet, over a hundred years later they are considered by many as some of the best examples of art we have. Perhaps in decades or centuries to come, the critics of the Turner Prize will be silenced, too.

PrayerDear Father,

Thank you for our artists, sculptors, musicians and other creative people. Thank you for the challenges they make to our senses and our view of the world. Amen.

When we look at a painting or a piece of artwork we are seeing a representation of the artist’s work, their life and their view of the world.

Further information

  • Leonardo’s ‘cartoon’ of the Holy Family is on display at the National Gallery, London
  • Find out more about the Turner Prize and view artwork by previous winners www.tate.org.uk/britain/turnerprize

(1) http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/dec/07/turner-prize-winner-richard-wright

This e-bulletin issue was first published in December 2009

About the author: Jane A. C. West