One of the four finalists for the 2019 Turner Prize – a contest for young British artists begun 35 years ago in the name of British landscape painter JMW Turner – submitted work meant for hearing, not seeing. Yes, the artwork of past finalists also tended to be off the wall. Damien Hirst's 1995 entry, a bisected cow and her calf titled Mother and Child, comes to mind. But while Turner's paintings of nature brim with so much atmosphere that the Royal Academy deemed them ”blots,” he never deserted the picture plane. He never stopped picture-making. Three if the four artists short-listed cast aside their easels.

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Coloring outside the line

Untraditional art-making has its place, of course, but the work of this years' Turner Prize finalist, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, appears particularly out of place. As the BBC News described him, “he thinks of himself as an “audio invesitagato...more interested in the ear than the eye,” in “earwitness” rather than “eyewitness” events. Hamdan records testimony from those racially-profiled because of how they talk. Hamdan is from Beirut.

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Certainly, his effort makes for a worthy sociological report; but does it belong in a visual art competition? At least, Hirst work was about something seeable.

Stepping out of the picture

Am I being too stuffy about non-traditional art? Perhaps. I wouldn't be surprised if the art world cognoscenti gave their seal of approval to the Turner Prize finalists' work this year. I still remember New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman say in a 1990 review that Hirst's hacked-up cows left him “smiling.” You have to wonder what Turner would say about a winner in a contest named after him who is more interested in the audible than the seeable.

Yes, the painter loved mystery as pointed out by his biographer George Walter Thornbury in 1862. But Hamdan's work is not about mystery. Just the opposite. It's about revelation and exposing the truth.

What's wrong with this picture?

Hamdan is but one of Turner Prize 2019 finalists to veer from visual art-making. Helen Cammock also focuses on sound, in her case, with spoken word performances. As well, Tai Shani pays attention to how gender difference affects the way writers express themselves. One might ask why he didn't use art through the ages to make the same point. That way, his entry could legitimately be called visual art.

Taking sides

On seeing the work of this years' Turner Prize finalists, BBC arts editor Will Gompertz said, “I have to say I don't think it's a classic year.” But, was it ever? According to the Tate Modern, in 2014, the purpose of the Turner Prize competition is “to promote discussion of art.” Can this years' finalists' work even be classified as “art”? Mark Hudson, the art critic for the British daily, The Telegraph, has an answer of sorts. “Whatever happened to art that takes you somewhere you've never been before?” What he said.

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