Each year the Royal Academy selects many hundreds of works of art, both amateur and professional, and piles them high and wide for its Summer Exhibition.
And each year many thousands of words are written questioning whether this is Any Way to View Art. The correct answer is “No, this is No Way to View Art” – it’s scattershot and suffocating and exhausting – but the law of averages means even the most cynical of visitors will find something to enjoy.
As ever, the thousand-plus pieces – whittled down from more than 12,000 entries – are displayed without captions or credits, just tiny numbers should you feel the urge to look them up, or the inclination to buy them (prices range from £145 to £650,000).
Apart from the smattering of recognisable pieces – television static by Wolfgang Tillmans, neons by Tracey Emin, lightbulbs by Michael Craig-Martin, a big bloody tumour by Anish Kapoor – the works tend to bleed into a single repeating wallpaper. Nothing gets more than a few seconds of undivided attention before something bigger or brighter or shinier or louder has distracted you. Quieter pieces, such as Emin’s monochrome depiction of her mother’s death-bed, are too easily overlooked.
On one level, this is all quite refreshing: the instinct to analyse, to search for patterns or wider meaning, is entirely abdicated: there is no bigger picture. You can wander from room to room simply admiring the pretty print of a skiing lady or the floating coffee pot or the nice painting of somebody’s breakfast (that last one is an excellent painting by David Tindle RA).
The various rooms are vaguely thematic – one has marginally more sculpture, one more prints, one is filled with “smaller works” – but this feels like a logistical imperative as much as curatorial cleverness. Sculpture tends to fare well in this melange, literally standing out against the fuzzy background of fine art. An adapted scooter used to smuggle petrol from Nigeria to Benin is an impressive opening to the exhibition, while a crouched youth sprouting porcupine spines from his hoodie is one of the more memorable pieces. But without the benefit of context, these pieces are robbed of meaning, just art for art’s sake.
The first Summer Exhibition was held in 1769, and the first stinging newspaper criticism came just a few short years later. I’ll happily take my tiny place in this august cycle of creation and destruction, and very much look forward to slagging it off again next year.
First published in City A.M.