Yinka Shonibare echoes many of the new RAs’ thoughts when he says he was “genuinely surprised” at being asked to join the Academy. “I had never actually thought about it. It’s a place with a lot of artists whose work I like and respect. So to be in the same place with those people is a great honour.” But he is acutely aware of the trappings of such recognition. He was awarded an MBE in 2004 and has worn those letters as an ironic badge of honour, since a core theme of his work is empire and colonialism.
Shonibare says his view of the Academy was of “a very establishment sort of place”, a comment which conjures Frederick William Elwell’s group portrait The Royal Academy Selection and Hanging Committee, 1938 [at the top of this article]. “But then I find that, actually, the Royal Academy has really opened up and there are a lot of contemporary artists of my generation there now. So I think it’s very different from what it was even 10 years ago.”
He admits that, despite the fact that many among the recent influx of Academicians were only recently seen as enfants terribles, “the younger generation in their 20s probably see us now as part of the establishment. That’s just the way it goes.”
But to have had doubts before joining the Academy is nothing new. Le Brun recalls: “It was still a big decision for me, career-wise – would this damage my career or not?” Painter Anthony Green, who became an RA in 1977, recalls: “I was told by people who knew probably better than I did that joining the Academy would probably ruin my career.” But as it turned out, “Later, Phillip King joined, Barry Flanagan joined, Paul Huxley joined, and suddenly it seemed like a daring thing for a cutting-edge artist to do.”
The dismissive attitude had been a legacy from an earlier era, Green believes. “Henry Moore’s generation used to cross themselves and walk by on the other side of Piccadilly in case they got tainted or got a septic virus from us,” he jokes. Green warns against “assumptions that the so-called body of Academicians were old-fashioned, conservative flat-earthists – in fact that’s never been the case”, and suggests that the reactionary views of modern art expressed by Alfred Munnings, RA President from 1944 to 1949, who famously said he would like to kick Picasso’s behind, caused long-term damage. “We’ve had to fight very hard to live that down.”
“It has taken a long hard slog to get back the respectability the RA has now. If you criticise the membership now, you’re criticising Gormley, Kapoor, Emin, Landy – and they are international names.”
However much the Academy might be more reflective of contemporary art than it has been in the past, Le Brun is clear that it is not representative. “It’s vital that everybody is elected as an individual; following the logic of that, they represent no-one other than themselves,” he says. “Even to the extent that they don’t represent the category of, say, painting, in which they are elected. This is really crucial and it gives the Academy its authority, because it’s a body of individual artists chosen on merit. As soon as you start moving towards representation – in other words, asking does this reflect the contemporary art world as we know it? – it distorts the decision about individual artists and architects, I think, in a really unhelpful way.”