Issue Number: 95
The Summer Exhibition is too riotously democratic to be taken seriously by the contemporary art world. But that’s exactly why Andrew Marr – a self-confessed Sunday painter – loves it
The Summer Exhibition is a guilty pleasure. It’s up there with going to see a gorespattered film on a sunny afternoon, chunky KitKats and pudding wine. But, you ask, why ‘guilty’? Isn’t this the most impeccably establishment and tradition-hallowed art show in the country?
That, of course, is exactly the point. Drop into the conversation that you have enjoyed the new White Cube show, or confess to disappointment at visiting the final room of ‘Gilbert and George’ at Tate Modern, and your kudos begins to wink like Leslie Phillips after a Viagra sandwich. Say that you thought this year’s Summer Exhibition was the best for a decade and you could be perceived as rather weird. It is too vulgarly mixed, too much the rattlebag to win you Brownie points – except, perhaps, from the Brownies.
Its huge array of pictures always includes something to sneer at, and of course that’s part of the guilty pleasure. Despite the terrifying knock-out contest to be accepted, enough limp mimicries of Sisley and genteel bunches of expiring flowers on seaside window-sills make it through to the exhibition to allow the most incompetent of Sunday painters (Marr, A) to feel the occasional squirm of superiority.
I like to fantasise about the unknown artists behind some of the canvases and sculptures: my theory is that the most restrained, indeed limpid, watercolours, sighing with good taste, turn out to be done by beef-faced youths with spiky hair and leather jackets, while the angriest shouts of abstract expressionist angst come from apple-cheeked lady octogenarians or retired vicars. But that’s only a theory.
The truth is, in today’s art world, this show is hilariously subversive. Instead of cool and limited, the contemplative focus of the adept on the singular genius, it offers a hot ruckus of contending objects. Riotously democratic, it subjects some of our fi nest artists to the test of joining the crowd. Go on, it says to famous RAs such as Gillian Ayres, David Hockney, Tracey Emin and Peter Blake, you think you’re so good? There are hundreds of others out there with real talent, some daring – go on, then, outshine them, show what you can do.
It challenges accepted hierarchies, though in a genial, relaxed way. By and large, the best painters, sculptors or architects are the best due to the fact that, blessed with talent, that is what they do, and their accumulated skill shimmers. But in this exhibition, one never knows. Who’s that by?
The show’s variety means that it asks the questions that won’t go away. By pitting artists of huge technical skill but limited originality, against others who barely know their craft but have a different eye, it challenges us to think about value. Its jumbled nature is particularly interesting, now that the successive waves of innovation have ended. All kinds of works, from sticky paintings of which Alfred Munnings (the anti-modernist President of the RA in the 1940s) would have approved, to abstract and conceptual pieces, must live side by side.
Multi-culturalism isn’t just something for the streets outside. What is unbearably dated and what survives? Most big art shows are set up on too limited a scale to begin to answer that. Generally, you are told what to think, or at least conditioned to expect how to react, and what to say, when you arrive in a show. Not here. There’s too much.
If these are value questions, then let’s admit that this is a souk, a market, as much as a statement about British art. I began going to the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh as a boy, greedily clutching the price list and fantasising about what I would buy if I could afford to; now I still find the prices fascinating and can buy things, just sometimes.
This, defiantly, isn’t a pure show. It asks: if you like that, then would you pay X for it, to have it with you forever? Or are you a more timid sort of person, who would prefer this, which costs Z instead? We go around thinking that we’re making judgements about what is on the walls whereas actually, we’re making judgements about ourselves. You could even say that what’s on the walls is mutely judging us.
However, my final reason for loving this show is a little more active. My moments of ntense pleasure – printable pleasure – happen when I’m drawing or painting. I am just good enough to know how bad I am, yet there is always the hope of doing better, one day, when the Toad work has lolloped off down the road and empty canvases beckon.
The Summer Exhibition reminds us that art, like life, is a continuum between the genius and the plodder. I am far too nervous to submit anything of my own. But one day…
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