Turner Prize Is it art? Fans get chance to decide

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LONDON, Oct 2 (Reuters) Pickled cows, elephant dung paintings and a transvestite potter -- The Turner Prize deserves its reputation as one of art's most controversial awards.

Now art lovers can decide for themselves if the prize rewards pretentious twaddle or cutting edge British art. Almost a quarter of a century of Turner prizewinners went on display today at London's Tate Britain museum.

The Turner enrages traditionalists who argue that it is a travesty of modern art, but the show attracts up to 120,000 visitors a year intrigued to see what all the fuss is about.

In 1995, the ''Bad Boy'' of British contemporary art Damien Hirst won with a pickled cow. In 2003, transvestite potter Grayson Perry wore a frilly Shirley Temple dress to accept his award. Chris Ofili used elephant dung to adorn his 1998 winning entries.

Pop star Madonna swore live on television when presenting the award in 2001 to Martin Creed, who won with a bare room containing a light that switched on and off.

But is it art? The debate has raged ever since the Turner was first awarded in 1984, although one thing critics can agree on is that the prize deserved full marks for putting contemporary art in the centre of public discussion.

''All publicity is good publicity. I give it 10 out of 10 for opening up public debate and 10 out of 10 for exporting the event around the world. Britart is in sparkling health,'' said art writer Meredith Etherington-Smith.

Reflecting on the art fest habitually derided by mocking tabloid newspapers, ArtReview editor Mark Rappolt said: ''It certainly pulls in the crowds and other countries like France and Germany have set up their own versions.'' But he sounded a note of caution.

''Where it is going now is an open question. At some point you are going to run out of noteworthy young artists. Some years it can be a struggle,'' he told Reuters. ''But it has definitely helped to popularise art.'' Tate Britain director Stephen Deuchar defends the prize, telling Reuters at yesterday's press viewing: ''We do not deliberately sensationalise. Nothing could be further from the truth.

''We want the artists to be comfortable with media pressure.

We have to shield them. But of course the point of the prize was to stimulate debate, so we can't turn around and complain.'' REUTERS SZ RK0826

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