The Turner prize is 30 this year and seems exhausted. I am saying this because the nominated are four young artists in their thirties (only one of them is 42) who seem to find joy (and, according to them, ‘poetry’) in the joyless. Firstly, the viewer is forced to spend hours sitting in the dark (three of the four contenders make long-form videos) trying to decide whether the work is elusive to a purpose, for aesthetic reasons, or just wilfully oblique and circuitous. If, and only if, he decides to experience such torture, there is not much of a reward apart from the obvious fact that this kind of art has become an unintended allegory of the current cultural crisis. These artists are the heirs of those prophetic two minutes in the film American Beauty when the protagonist transforms a shopping bag blown by the wind into a moment of extreme beauty.

Berlin-based James Richards opens with a boot in the face; at least in my case. You might happen upon his black-and-white video just as the camera sinks tremulously beneath the surface of a pond, or a photograph of a nude woman flashes up, genitals censored by furious scratchings, or the moment where a flower is teasingly stroked across someone’s sphincter. Each element in this shifting collage of new and found footage gives way to the next in a constant flow of imagery that defers meaning, mysteriously elliptical, never reaching a conclusion – and so forth.

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In fact the piece seems remarkably didactic. The censored images are taken from a Japanese art library where everything explicit has been sandpapered out. Here come Man Ray’s nudes and, predictably, plenty of Robert Mapplethorpe, including the famous bullwhip in the anus shot, scratched away but given a restorative parallel in that teasing scene with the flower. Despite its postmodern peepshow of partial images and glimpses, and its dreamily circular movements, the video is all about symbolic violence and sexual healing, so that you might expect some erotic undercurrents. Yet it feels peculiarly laboured and joyless. On the other hand, it places its artistic value in the tension between that historical censorship (which the viewer is supposed to be aware of) and that collage-like patch-worked flow of images that is supposed to signify the enticement of that which has no conclusion and keeps going on and on.

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Tris Vonna-Michell, who works in many media, including performance, has a two-gallery installation in which you find the artist desperately trying to make sense of his odd past as a German born and raised in Southend. There are quantities of slides, photographs and printed scraps – the familiar ephemera so often used to fill out contemporary one-man shows – and a rigidly indifferent video of the Essex marshes that could have been filmed by a robot. What predominates is the artist’s own voice, racing on at neurotically hectic pace, trying to connect one clue to the next, trying to piece together some sort of story from the fragments.

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He talks to his father, his mother, his grandmother on the telephone; each relative gets further away from the original narrative – whatever it is – one digressing all the way back to the Crimean war to the origins of an enigma that turns out to concern somebody else; another referring him to certain locations in Berlin that will prove significant, except that when the artist goes there, urgently pacing the streets, he cannot find any of these places and one station – or so he claims – is disappearing in smoke even as he arrives.

Turner Prize shortlist, Tate Britain, London, Britain - 29 Sep 2014

Vonna-Michell is an unreliable narrator with a pathologically anxious voice, his stream-of-consciousness somewhere between half-formed poetry and patter. You won’t be surprised to hear that he gets nowhere at all, despite turning up many strange episodes en route. The east coast novels of WG Sebald come strongly to mind, which is unfortunate for Vonna-Michell on two counts; first because he’s no writer, but also because Sebald’s use of mysterious black-and-white photographs is more captivating too.

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In fact, Vonna-Michell seems mainly impatient with images: they appear, and disappear, from the various screens in his galleries like evidence momentarily considered only to be rapidly rejected. In his case, this relates to the search for an inaccessible past – what can pictures ever really show us? – but it feels curiously characteristic of the whole Turner prize show. These artists are all in their 30s, with the exception of Duncan Campbell (b1972), and have grown up in an on-screen culture where images can be plucked from anywhere at any time, and just as easily junked or altered. They seem both mistrustful of the image world and self obsessed by their own boredom.

So mistrustful, in the case of Canadian-born Ciara Phillips, that she hasn’t bothered with any at all. Phillips scarcely seems to be advancing anything visual or otherwise with her rain-spattered posters. These are pieces of overprinted paper pasted to the wall – the glum definition of wallpaper itself – and their only interest lies in the fact that such bright colours (Day-Glo pink and yellow) could have so little impact in the gallery. The patterns appear like a rash over sculptures the size of shop counters shaped like the letters OK, which must be a deliberate hostage to fortune since everything is so exactly the opposite. Not even the opposite for the whole exercise lacks relevance. It is an ode to the irrelevant.

I sense a resistance to the whole idea of making art for this show, which might be a position in itself, were it not so pointless. There are other ways of turning down the invitation than producing something so entirely vacuous. Besides Ciara Phillips’ body of work is all about making. In fact, the Tate’s press release says: ‘Phillips works with print in the broadest sense producing screenprints, textiles, photographs and wall paintings as site-specific installations. She often works collaboratively, transforming the gallery into a workshop and involving other artists, designers and local community groups.’ If there is an idea of workshop trying to be conveyed, why is that it looks like no one has started working at all.

Which leaves Duncan Campbell as the only obvious winner this year. The Irish film-maker is a fine and original thinker of longstanding reputation whose questioning portraits of Bernadette Devlin and John DeLorean have been much shown and admired. He is an anxious artist too, but his anxiety is productive.

Campbell is showing It for Others (2013), a long and complex film quartet that moves with real subtlety through all sorts of ideas about the uses and values of art. One section concerns African masks and takes off from Chris Marker’s famous 1953 film, Statues Also Die, pondering the effect upon the Benin sculptures in the British Museum, for instance, of removing them from their original cultures. Another is a witty contemplation of anthropomorphic advertising – a face for every bottle, jar and packet – that becomes a human portrait in itself; and the last is a superb ballet of black figures on a white ground, performed by the Michael Clark Company and choreographed so that the dancers appear to trace words, forms and equations with their movements, a sort of graceful calligraphy that spells out ideas from Das Kapital while constantly countering those ideas with a vision of actual living bodies. Is he the best British artist today? Hell, no. But, at least, he tries. I am saying that he is not a great artist because his work is also dependant on the awareness of political events that he manipulates to inject meaning (and, I would say, significance) in the whole exercise. His exploration of the uses and abuses of images of IRA martyrs for commercial, political and emotional purposes during the Troubles is proof of this.

I wouldn’t consider this selection disappointing but worrying. This is the aesthetic of anxiety, self-obsession and depression taken to canonic proportions.

HAVE YOU WATCHED MY REVIEW OF THE UPCOMING ALEXANDER MCQUEEN’S ‘SAVAGED BEAUTY’ AT THE V&A?