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The special ones: why art needs the Turner prize

In an age where we follow the crowd and glorify the ordinary in art, the Turner prize picks out the handful of extraordinary artists who truly deserve acclaim

One of the most fascinating arguments in Charles Saatchi's article in the Guardian on Saturday is his claim that many people in the art world "simply cannot tell a good artist from a weak one".

This opens up one of the most interesting questions in the whole world of contemporary art. That same issue arises every year at Turner prize time – which is where we are now. It's one thing to revile the whole of modern art and anyone who likes it, as does a Stuckist painter in a series of paintings starring me as their villain. It is much harder to sort the sheep from the goats, and try to identify what is worthwhile in the art of our time.

That's what Saatchi says curators, critics, and dealers and collectors fail to do. In fact he says they have no "eye" at all, and just pretend to love what everyone else happens to be pretending to love.

It's true. At any one time, there are waves of art-world enthusiasm for particular artists that go way beyond the artist's actual qualities. Broaden your view across the whole range of applauded contemporary artists and I reckon that about 70% of them are no good at all. This is only logical. The numbers of artists acclaimed and feted in Britain today exceed any possible real figure of truly outstanding artists in any one country at any one time.

Quantity, not quality, is the ethos of bienniales and art fairs. Critics reviewing the Venice Biennale simply accept that the vast majority of works will be boring and trivial, ignore it, and leap on the stuff they like. This year I felt it was a good Biennale because I liked five or six things – out of hundreds.

That actually is what art is like: out of hundreds of people who want to be artists, you are lucky if one has genuine talent. Real imagination and the ability to translate it into art come rarely, and even the best artists may only be truly good for a few years.

Discrimination should be the first rule of the art scene, because there is no value for anyone in glorifying the ordinary. The job is the find the extraordinary, and support that.

It's interesting how passionately audiences in New York responded to Alexander McQueen's posthumous exhibition at the Met. Evidently, the fashion world is much better than the art world at discerning real talent and celebrating the genuine stars, not the also-rans.

The worst problem with contemporary art is this suspension of critical faculties, the craven readiness to say the new and the cool must be great, by definition.

This is why the Turner prize matters. It is one moment when artists are judged instead of all being lumped together in a merry carnival. Once a year in December, a jury sits in a room and argues about what is truly good in art. Sometimes the decisions baffle and enrage me. They hurt the also-rans as much as they help the winner. But the Turner jury has a genuine chance to resist the tide of uncritical fashion and recognise the authentic, original handful of artists who truly deserve acclaim. I hope this year's Turner goes to George Shaw, a real artist if ever I saw one. And I hope the arguments that visitors enjoy are deep and serious and bitter – because passionate criticism is the only cure for the dreary feast of art for cool's sake. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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