Have We Lost the Shock Factor?

Christian Watts

Even if you’re not into the whole arts and culture scene, it is highly likely that you will know of at least a few Turner Prize nominees that have caused particular controversy in the award’s 29 year run.

To name a few, Damien Hirst with The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, his formaldehyde shark , and Tracey Emin’s My Bed. These, in my opinion, can be classed as some of the most talked about and famous pieces of contemporary art in the world. Art critics might class them as pieces that have influenced conceptualism and how we look at art, whilst the ordinary folk might class it as a bed filled with vodka bottles and used condoms. Either way, Turner Prize nominees such as these have been the talk of the town for decades.

Last week this year’s nominees, David Shrigley, Tino Sehgal, Laure Prouvost and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, were announced. I had heard of two of these artists, Shrigley and Sehgal, and I do like their work. Shrigley’s weird and wonderful illustrations and general silliness will always hold a place in my heart in particular. However, as I looked at these four artists, I was struck by how bored I found myself. There is nothing particularly controversial about these artists. Nothing stood out for me in the slightest.

The Turner Prize is an award that is given to a British artist under the age of 50 for their contribution to British art in the previous year. I am not saying that this means the work has to be controversial, however, I have found that the most challenging work has always had the most impact. The Turner Prize used to shock, outrage and annoy countless numbers of people. Reactions against the prize were created, mockeries of the prize came into being, and people protested. The most important thing that this did was that it created debate. Contemporary art was at times in the forefront of the media and people who didn’t really pay attention to who the next Duchamp or Picasso was sat up and made their opinions known. To me this is the essence of the prize and this is how artists can contribute to the art world best.

laure prouvost

The Turner Prize nominees seem to have become more and more predictable. There will always be a painter. This year it is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, a figurative painter who predominately paints black people. Furthermore none of her subjects are real, they are all completely fictional. Critics and the media have made a point of raising both of these things in their articles. She even says “we’re used to looking at portraits of white people”. That may be true, but her idea of controversy is a bit dated. Also correct me if I’m wrong but I’m pretty sure artists have been painting fictional subjects for centuries. I’m almost certain that Michelangelo didn’t ask Adam and God to sit there whilst he painted his fresco onto the Sistine Chapel. No one even knows for sure who the Mona Lisa is, so don’t get me started…

lynette yiado mboakye

Next up is the performance artist. Tino Sehgal did a piece in the Tate Modern’s turbine hall called These Associations. This involved a number of people jogging around in a circle and at a set time breaking off to go regale visitors with anecdotes of their lives. I love performance art as I am extremely interested in kinetic forms of work, however, with Sehgal there was something that just left me a bit cold.


The last two artists, Shrigley and Prouvost, are two artists I can’t help but admire. I went to see Shrigley’s exhibition in the Cornerhouse in Manchester and it amused me for days. His exhibition at the Hayward was also a treat if anyone got to see that. His dark humour is witty yet still poignant. However, worthy of the £25,000 award? Sorry Shrigley, no amount of stuffed dogs holding a placard saying ‘I’m Dead’ will convince me of that.

shrigley dog im dead

I don’t want to say that I dislike the Turner Prize, as in a lot of ways I truly respect its provocative place within the art world. However, its renowned cutting-edge focus seems to have taken a dive in recent years. It continues to highlight a lot of good artists in their own right, although I am beginning to feel that it’s losing its edge.


It’s less ‘Oh my God’ and nowadays more ‘Oh…’. Maybe contemporary art has simply run out of things to be controversial about. Who knows, in the coming years the Turner Prize may piss off some people again, for the right reasons this time.

About Christian Watts

Christian is a soon-to-be design student at Goldsmiths, London. Originally from (near) Liverpool, he can usually be found with a camera or sketchbook. Works at art galleries pretending he knows what he's talking about. Follow on twitter @cjfwatts