Why a woman should have won the 2008 Turner prize

by Bidisha, The Guardian

Mark Leckey's elevation above three serious female artists on the Turner prize shortlist is the latest example of an ancient injustice

So, the Turner prize has been given to Mark Leckey and now all us feminists must clap diplomatically, wearing politely galled smiles. Leckey's multimedia work is certainly appealing in its breezy jauntiness. It serves up some dull non-icons of pop culture with a sense of lightness and without a hipster sneer. It is charmingly buoyed-up by its own solipsism, sweetly insular and untroubled by the woes of the world.

But what of the others – Runa Islam, Goshka Macuga and Cathy Wilkes? All three women are artists of substance. Runa Islam, by far the most accomplished artist on the shortlist, is a film-maker whose work has a stunning crispness. Her best known piece, Be the First to See What You See As You See It, is a painfully tense and impeccably shot short of a woman sweeping fine china off a table. The gleaming completeness of Islam's aesthetic always reminds me of Mary Harron's adaptation of American Psycho: tightly controlled, completely assured, beautiful but chilling. Like previous Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen, Islam could be a feature film director. Except as a woman, she is less likely to receive funding from backers, less likely to have her film distributed, less likely to be treated respectfully by male critics (or written about at all), and much less likely to win an Oscar.

Cathy Wilkes's work has been sneered at because it explores women's identity, autobiography and capitalism. Meanwhile, Leckey references laddism, himself and the pop culture that capitalism has enabled. Wilkes's clever arrangements present contemporary items that look like a housewife's fantasy trawl through the Littlewoods catalogue: luxury goods, domestic necessities – the props and gewgaws of the feminine construct mixed with Bridget Jones-ish trashy comforts. It's a dark, accurate portrait of contemporary, feminism-free femaleness.

Goshka Macuga also explores female identity through architectural satire, large in scale and Grimm-like in dark humour. Her works Haus der Frau 1 and 2 display ranges of slick modern furniture divorced from context, lumbering yet flimsy. One is struck by the meagre space available to women and by the stylish surface that conceals the drudgery; it's strange that depictions of misogyny by women, should be considered niche, petty or unimaginative.

Leckey has been favoured by the deathless double standard that prizes men's imaginary existential whimsy, over women's real struggle. It is an ancient injustice, an ancient hypocrisy: a mediocre man is called a genius, a genius woman is called mediocre – if she is acknowledged at all.

If a woman artist is playful, she is minor. If she is serious, she is dowdy. The worshipping of men and contempt for women by both sexes underlies this centuries-old truism. This is obvious not only in the favouring of male artists in the Turner prize, but also in the slavish critical plaudits, financial appreciation, career opportunities and serious respect that men enjoy, while women attract mindless sneering on all sides. So, let the art world celebrate on, clapping Leckey while slapping women in the face.

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