Rule Britannia

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With Elizabeth II all the rage in the U.S. this week — look, she looks just like Helen Mirren! — the time is right for a quick check of news from the U.K.

And the news is — the four nominees for the Turner Prize were announced yesterday.

But the problem is — I doubt that the Turner carries much weight for most Americans. A number of past winners have gone on to lasting careers — Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, Rachel Whiteread, Anish Kapoor. (To say nothing of the winners from the early years of the prize — it started in 1984 — like Howard Hodgkin or Malcolm Morley, who already had significant careers when they won.) But more recently the short list can seem like one of those anthology CDs of British pop bands you’ve never heard of and never will again. When I was in London last November to catch up with the fall shows of Velazquez, Holbein and Adam Elsheimer — does this sound like one of those Paris fashion week reports? — Tate Britain was holding its annual Turner Prize show of last year’s nominees. (This fall the show is moving up to Tate Liverpool. ) Tomma Abt’s series of meticulous, uniformly sized abstractions seemed the best of the lot and a few weeks later she took the prize. But even those just seemed like agreeable cabinet painting, and none of the other three made any impression at all.

All the same, the Turner Prize and the publicity it generates has done a lot to get Brits to think and talk about art. Contemporary art is part of ordinary conversation (meaning media coverge) in London in a way unimaginable in the U.S., where, outside of the art magazines, it mostly comes up in the context of the auction market. (And when I say that contemporary artists make news in Britain, I don’t just mean the tabloid-friendly shenanigans of Tracey Emin or whatever other YBAs were out drinking last night, though that’s all part of the mix.) So whatever its shortcomings, maybe the U.S. could use a Turner all its own.