At last the Turner prize gets it. Artists improve with age
At 66, Veronica Ryan has become the oldest ever winner of the Turner prize. Heartening news – and not just for fans of Ryan, the sculptor who created the first permanent public artwork commemorating the Windrush generation. There is something universally cheery and comforting about the phrase “oldest ever winner” – designed to put a glint in the middle-aged eye and send lapsed artists everywhere rifling through drawers for their box of watercolours. (Could they still have a chance?) It is quite different, for example, from the dreadful phrase “youngest ever winner”, designed only to panic contemporaries, wind up their parents, and send everyone else into despair.
The old are a relatively new discovery for the Turner prize. Between 1991 and 2016 it had an age limit of 50, to encourage younger emerging artists. But if young artists once needed special encouragement, it is not at all clear they do now. In the visual arts, in playwriting, in literary fiction, in music, we seem to have nothing but young emerging artists. The most celebrated literary stars of the last decade have mostly been women in their late 20s and early 30s; the clutch of playwrights now dominating the London scene look like they could comfortably stage their own production of Bugsy Malone. The art magazine Apollo limits its annual lists of “the most inspiring artists, collectors and thinkers” to those under 40, while prizes and grants available to visual artists fairly bristle with “under 35” stipulations – as do those for writers. This year’s Booker shortlist had a 20-year-old on it. The music industry has always been ageist.