Tradition. The glue that holds societies together. That defines the change of the seasons, the ebb and flow of years. And is there a country on earth where tradition holds sway to a greater extent than Britain?
This time of the year sees one of my favourite British traditions. Like most traditions, it is highly ritualized and varies remarkably little from year to year. But small changes are allowed, as the British know instinctively that freezing a tradition will inevitably result in its atrophy and decline. For the benefit of any foreign readers to this site, here is how it works.
This tradition goes under the general title of the ‘Turner Prize’, and functions as follows:
Stage 1: Tate Britain, the world’s leading gallery of British art, holds a ‘contest’ (as the rite is known) each year named after the great British artist, Turner. The works of art submitted are always described as being ‘modern’ or ‘conceptual’. A compulsory component each year is the inclusion of animal or human excrement, a faulty bulb and a cow’s stomach entitled ‘Lack of Motherly Affection’. Apart from this, variations are allowed, although tradition dictates that the ‘competitors’, as the participants in this British ritual are called, do not stray too far from the above themes.
Stage 2: Once the works of art are on display and hordes of British subjects, young and old, flock to see them (another compulsory part of the tradition), it’s time for the next stage. This involves articles appearing in newspapers and, more recently, on the Internet denouncing the Turner Prize as yet another sure sign that the Liberal Elite is succeeding in destroying British Civilisation As We Know It. Again, the exact content of these articles is allowed to vary, but tradition stipulates that each must include at least one of the following phrases: ‘it’s not really art’, ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ and ‘my six-year old could have done it’. The last one is particularly popular.
Foreign visitors unaware of the intricacies of this great tradition may be alarmed at these confident predictions by eminent writers of the imminent demise of British civilisation. But there is no need for concern. It’s all just part of the tradition. Predicting the end of British Civilisation As We Know It at the hands of the Liberal Elite is in itself a great British tradition going back at least three centuries. British children are taught at an early age not to be frightened by it. It is a wonderful and cheering example of the British sense of humour, about which you have no doubt seen much written.
Stage 3: This is actually a new stage that has only emerged over the past few years, and shows the British genius at adapting old traditions to the demands of the modern age. We have all read much about the ‘victim culture’ that seems to run through contemporary society. Well, the British have, with a sense of irony surely unequalled by any other nation, incorporated the victim culture into the tradition of the Turner Prize. Who are the victims? Those who do not like the Turner Prize (shame on them, for scorning such a cornerstone of British life). The scene of their victimhood? That agent of terror, the dinner party. In most countries, a dinner party is a venue for friends to get together over good food and wine. I must admit that such dinner parties do occur in Britain. But they are complemented by truly terrifying dinner parties where uttering a throw-away derisory opinion about the Turner Prize can end careers and destroy marriages. How to recognise such a dinner party? Not an easy task. The British do it instinctively, usually by detecting the presence of the word ‘Islington’, ‘Hampstead’ or, increasingly often, ‘Clapham’ or ‘Shoreditch’ in the invitation. Never, ever attend a dinner party in one of these areas during Turner Prize season. Or you too could become a victim of this vicious aspect of an otherwise benign tradition. Although perhaps you shouldn’t be too scared – most victims survive to tell the tale quite lucratively in the columns of the Sunday newspapers.
Stage 4: Sometime early in December the ‘winner’ of the prize is announced. Tradition dictates two possible responses. You may express pride that British art leads the world (although this may mark you out as being a candidate for the Liberal Elite). Or you may express horror at the absolute decline in standards and bemoan that nobody paints like Rembrandt any more (but beware the aforementioned dinner parties). Both responses are quite acceptable according to the demands of tradition. The latter is far, far more common, so, just to be a bit more individual, I would recommend adopting the former.
Stage 5: Crucially, once it’s all over, you must forget, or pretend to forget that it ever happened. This way you can feign astonishment when the whole thing starts again next year. For, like all great traditions, it most certainly will.
Also posted at The Sharpener.