The art world’s most prestigious award, The Turner Prize, is also, to many people’s minds, the most powerful symbol of its lunacy and pointlessness. Founded in 1984 to celebrate new developments in contemporary art, the way it works is that nominations for artists are invited each year, four are picked by a crack-team of art nuts to be exhibited before a winner is chosen to take home a cash prize which today stretches to £40,000.

Since the very beginning the Prize has polarised a nation. There are those who think it represents an increasingly rare forum for the most relevant and powerful stuff that the human imagination is capable of, and there are those who think that the whole thing is generally more arsey than the Rokeby Venus. The Prize temporarily disappeared in 1990 whilst people in white drainpipes and massive jumpers squabbled over the rules, the prize money, and whether the whole affair was just a waste of time. The debate has not stopped since.

What is all the fuss about then? In 2007, exhibition-goers would have seen a winning two hour film of artist Mark Wallinger dressed in a bear suit wandering around the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin at night. In 2008 Mark Leckey give a winning lecture on cats. In 2002, Fiona Banner exhibited her magnum opus, a piece entitled Arsewoman in Wonderland: a wall-sized blow-by-proverbial-blow account of a porn film in massive pink type. Sadly Miss Banner missed out on the prize that particular year, though evidently undeterred, she crashed into the press again last year by exhibiting an upside down aeroplane at the Tate. 

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This year, we have two painters shortlisted, George Shaw and Karla Black. But before you traditionalists breathe a sigh of relief, know that one works in airfix paint, the other in lipstick, bath bombs and bronzer. Also featured at the exhibition, this year at the Baltic gallery in Gateshead, is the work of Martin Boyce, who creates installations based on urban landmarks, and Hilary Lloyd, whose display consists of video screens and projectors showing scenes including construction sites.

If on paper much of the material may strike the sceptical reader as justifying that perennial wail of ‘I could’ve done that!’, remember that all that can ever really be said in reply is, ‘Yeah, but you didn’t.’ Both perspectives are valuable.

The furore is as important to the identity of the Turner Prize as the unmade beds and transvestistism. The art world is more sophisticated today than in the days when all you had to worry about was not getting Monet and Manet mixed up.

In a society increasingly characterised by a mania for all things monetary, modern art is not contaminated by, but thrives from, its interaction with the marketplace, asking important questions about the value of creativity, the nature of investment, and, most problematically, what makes art art.

Divorced from an environment in which these questions are asked, two cheap plastic blow-up sex dolls with a dildo placed in the 69 position would amount only to the coffee break creativity of a bored Ann Summers employee, rather than the 2003 prize-winning entry. The consternation, the media din, the bookies’ bets, the Stuckist protests, the hefty price-tags: these are what make the Turner Prize valuably baffling and unique.

This year’s Turner exhibition is at the BALTIC centre and runs until the 8th of January.