RA summer exhibition: State Art is swallowing the RA

First published in The Jackdaw 21, September 2002

As the cost of non-member submission has increased so the chance of inclusion has diminished owing to the reduction in available room.

Seemingly unstoppable, the apparently incurable bacterium of State Art continues to spread like a plague into every corner of culture. Like the feared superbug, necrotising fasciitis, which feasts on healthy flesh and for which amputation or extreme excision are the only known expedients for stalling its progress, its touch means certain death to the host. The Royal Academy is State Art’s latest victim. I predict that within ten years the policy and membership of the RA will be indistinguishable from those in State Art-sponsored galleries and organisations with their concentration on 400 Bad Request skill-less novelty and the slavish worship of new media, neither of which, despite official lies to the contrary, has any audience. Meanwhile, those still engaging with figurative painting and sculpture,  who might reasonably have expected to find succour if not guidance and tuition from the Academy, will be abandoned to eat their cake… The Royal Academy has decided that it must be seen to keep up with the Southwark nouveau. As I’ve stated in these pages before, the tragedy in this is that the Academy, both through education and exhibition, is ideally equipped to nourish those wide areas of contemporary work currently ignored by State Art…

This year’s Summer Exhibition [2002] was praised by critics for its sparser, tidier hang and the alleged increase in average quality caused by inviting artists who are not members and who wouldn’t dream of submitting to the indignity of an ‘open’ selection which might reject them and which is, anyway, a procedure widely known to be corrupted by nods, winks and backscratches. The Academy should ignore those critics who lampoon the formerly bazaar-like appearance of the annual show, for they perennially miss the point. They criticise it, often justifiably, for the abysmal standard – crummy work which, incidentally, just happens to sell like hot cakes to people who don’t read art criticism – and the weary repetitiveness of the Academicians’ own submissions … This year’s spartan hang meant that many who normally have work accepted lost out. In ten years editing art magazines I have never received so many letters on a single topic as I did on this one.. Good artists wrote that for the first time in decades, and despite submitting their best, they were rejected. As a result, a few


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whose incomes are already negligible will experience real hardship. Of course, no one has a right to exhibit but the Royal Academy, an institution run by and

400 Bad Request

for artists, surely has a duty to look after artists’ interests.

Two years ago the Academy stopped producing statistics in respect of the Summer Exhibition, presumable for the sensible reason that they might be used in evidence against them.  Over the last decade there has been a steady erosion in the number of non-member, non-invitee exhibitors. Of this year’s 1,059 works, itself a reduction of around 10% over the last couple of years and just under a fifth over the last decade, 304 were paintings selected from the open, paying submission. The average total entry over the last decade has been between 11,000 and 13,000 works, so what is anyway a small chance of success has been further reduced. As the cost of non-member submission has increased so the chance of inclusion has diminished owing to the reduction in available room. Space has been squeezed by accommodating mini one-man shows…  Another gallery is allocated to honorary RAs from abroad. This usually involves the hanging of signature works by big names who don’t need the exposure: this is a preposterous waste of space.  Then there is the aforementioned new policy of inviting bores from the cutting edge as a genuflection to State Art. Thus are artists’ incomes being sacrificed to the Academy’s desire for fashionability and upbeat critical reception.

David Lee

The Jackdaw Sept-Oct 2011