RA summer exhibition: An institution betrayed

First published in The Jackdaw 71 September 2007: Figurative painter Gary M James on the 2007 RA Summer Exhibition.

Any outsider who entered figurative work which was not small enough to squeeze into the small south room had wasted their time, money and effort

I became a Friend of the Royal Academy not long before a painting of mine, Captain Maltravers’ Voyage to the Interior, was hung in the 1980 Summer Exhibition, published in the RA Illustrated and became presenter Russell Harty’s TV pick of the show… In 1990 my River Market was hung in the Summer Exhibition and published in The Illustrated… A worrying development that year was the inclusion of a photograph for the first time… When I raised the issue at a public meeting at the Academy (to general applause) there were wry expressions exchanged on the platform. Michael Kenny said that photography was now regarded as Fine Art. Phillip King (my old sculptor tutor), if I remember correctly, said that he didn’t expect such inclusion to become general, but to his credit Ben Levene said that he was not so sanguine about the development and that it would be Performance Art next…

In 1991 my Forecast was hung and in The Illustrated again. On Varnishing Day a fellow exhibitor muttered darkly about a cabal of abstractionists taking over at the Academy and warned that things would go to pot. At the time I though little more of it as I’d always regarded abstraction as a useful exercise that all serious artists should explore at some time in their lives. However, used as an end in itself and in eschewing drawing it became the Trojan horse for the anything-and-everything-as-art that took hold in the 1960s.

Throughout the 1990s we began to see invitations extended to high-profile names, including the yBas to the Summer Exhibition. If their works were often inexplicable to the general public and on occasion quite feeble, their inclusion would at least please the party hacks of the press. And anyway what did “the ladies who lunch”  know about art? In 2003 the open submission was corralled into Galleries VII and VIII … and were wall-to-wall abstraction, with one or two semi-abstracts thrown in. Any outsider who entered figurative work which was not small enough to squeeze into the small south room had wasted their time, money and effort. But at least that room had reverted to its old sell-out figurative self after a few (loss-making?) years devoted to single big names.

In 2006 we had the infamous headless plinth – definitive proof of losing the plot – and this year we have:

1. David Hockney saying that British art was going through a fallow period and then taking up a whole wall with an embarrassingly poor 50-panel painting.

2. A whole gallery given over to a few silly German sculptures,  largely ignored.

3. A whole gallery given over to invited photography (Next year a photographer RA?)

4. Tracey Emin made an RA simply for her high profile name.  Has anyone actually noticed her bit of screwed up neon tube in Gallery X yet?

5. The £25,000 Wollaston Prize given for a small piece of broom handle to another ‘big name’ who scarcely needs or deserves it…

I am worried and upset by the sight of the Royal Academy being parasitised by fashionable sophistry because it is running scared of repeating another post-Munnings “falling behind the times”. Maybe that gent had it right after all and he could see further than all the vested interests since. The Academy should have stood as a bastion for those trying to swim against the tide of nonsense and a public purposely kept wrong-footed. Not everyone wants to play silly self-serving games. The Academy cannot rely on the art of the past forever for its popular support. In the likes of Tracey Emin I see no Monet for the future. With her and her like now in a position to call the shots, making it up as they go along, the course of the timeless art, founded in communicable skill, will have to find other channels.

The Jackdaw Sept-Oct 2011