It’s the most hated exhibition in Britain – and the antidote to a self-obsessed art world

It’s time again for the Summer Exhibition, the perpetually unstable mix of works by professional artists (the Academy’s hundred or so academics) and hundreds of hopeful amateurs. Selected from open submissions and by a rotating committee, it results every year in more than 1,000 works hanging on every available wall: cat paintings, discarded abstractions that are 50 years old, a bust of Elizabeth II made of beads. There are few exhibitions that resemble this.

After more than two and a half centuries, it has become an institution – despite the efforts of its many critics. Enter the Telegraph’s Alastair Sooke, who wrote in 2021 that he is “as indestructible as a cockroach… groaning with banal, random images of flowers, gardens, animals and a dash of old-fashioned Venetian views”. About 2020, Cal Revely-Calder could only conclude that “the summer exhibition is not a serious show. Sooner or later it has to come to an end.”

Why is it that such a happy event is guaranteed to provoke such hostile reactions? What’s not to like about a great day out for those amateurs who would otherwise never get near a major national public gallery?

The art world can have mixed attitudes towards ‘outsiders’, and how far they should be allowed into its exclusive institutions. But letting in ‘ordinary people’ and their uneducated, self-taught forms of art making, rather than keeping art galleries reserved for insiders, is the reason for having an open-submission exhibition in the first place, and the bewildered horror of the encounter with its exhibition. worst offenders comes with the territory.

Best of all, it’s a leveler: Seeing artwork by strangers go hand-in-hand with well-known names creates a reaction against checking the wall label to see if it’s by a ‘real’ artist. Was that pearly pink femme fatale emerging from a giant candy wrapper (Allen Jones’ contribution in 2011) much better than the stretched Pink Panther weaving through a canvas, in 2018? And was that better than the portrait of Nigel Farage next to it?

Allen Jones' contribution to the 2011 Summer Exhibition: 'Think Pink'

Allen Jones’ contribution to the 2011 Summer Exhibition: ‘Think Pink’

But while there is talk of the exhibition being open to all, this is offset by the privilege accorded to the Academy’s own members – from Anish Kapoor to David Hockney – who are given a place of honor in the galleries and allowed to show more works. After all, the RA is made up of practicing artists chosen by their peers, and the Summer Exhibition takes the view that these RAs represent the best of British art.

That’s the contradiction. On the one hand, you’re dealing with a host of works by hopefuls that don’t seem to meet the critics’ minimum standards; and on the other, the potentially unnecessary presentation of a group of established artists who are only there because they belong to what amounts to (if you’re cynical) an exclusive club, many of whom (if you’re very cynical) are given the opportunity to showing what may be mediocre work; the former and the never-blessed, finally side by side.

But in today’s art world – where commercial dealers and museum curators obsessed with the message of the message have become the real gatekeepers and kingmakers – could such a show be exactly what we need? An association of artists deciding what is good and what is not usually does not determine high-profile art exhibitions. Perhaps this is the place where we can get a broader sense of the art being made in Britain, without the curatorial lectures – a place not just for the Sunday painters, but for anyone brave enough to put forward their own ploughing.

Charles West Cope's 1876 painting, The Council of the Royal Academy, selects photographs for exhibition, 1875Charles West Cope's 1876 painting, The Council of the Royal Academy, selects photographs for exhibition, 1875

Charles West Cope’s 1876 painting The Council of the Royal Academy selects photographs for exhibition, 1875 – Alamy

It’s easy to forget that, far from being a bit of seasonal triviality, the Summer Exhibition has been one of the founding events of the Royal Academy since 1769. Its competitive exhibition of work in a growing art market made it a major player in the British cultural scene. life during the 19th century. This was the institution founded by Gainsborough and Reynolds, which had Turner as one of its professors and counted Victorian art stars Lord Leighton and John Everett Millais among its presidents, all the while denouncing painterly radicals like Whistler and Constable.

Whispers of mediocrity have always accompanied the exhibition, but while new talents were also celebrated – as long as they stayed within the boundaries of the prevailing taste for social portraits, classical references and allegorical scenes – the summer exhibition was believed to be the place where artistic taste found. made.

But its role as trendsetter is not what it once was, and for much of the past century the Academy has struggled to make sense of a world in which the academic tradition was in a losing battle against the encroachment of a “foreign” modernism, while its status as a representative of an artistic culture meant that Britain’s global influence was waning.

William Powell Frith, a private view of the Royal Academy, 1881 (1883)William Powell Frith, a private view of the Royal Academy, 1881 (1883)

William Powell Frith, A Private View of the Royal Academy, 1881 (1883) – Alamy

Today, the Academy has made peace with what is now called contemporary art. It has courted some of the big names of ‘Young British Art’; the academics now count Tracey Emin, Wolfgang Tillmans and, more recently, a slightly older generation of black British artists such as Sonia Boyce, Isaac Julien and John Akomfrah among their number. Contemporary painters, as well as photographers, video makers and installation artists, have all joined the Academy.

And even though the open selection looks like a car boot sale according to critics, the summer show is very contemporary. Yes, figurative painting and sculpture is in abundance, but there is also a lot of figurative painting and sculpture on display in London’s trendiest contemporary art galleries, many of which are just a short walk from Burlington House, some of which are style and attitude do not differ from what is often shown there. When critics complain that there’s just too much to see, or that it’s all terrible, perhaps we should ask ourselves by what standard we judge.

Summer exhibitions that have received positive reviews have usually been orchestrated by respected contemporary artists – Grayson Perry and Yinka Shonibare, for example. And the push to link its other programming to current hot topics – climate change or postcolonialism – shows that the Academy is as concerned with contemporary orthodoxies as shows at the Tate or those funded by the Arts Council.

The 2022 edition of the RA Summer ShowThe 2022 edition of the RA Summer Show

The 2022 edition of the RA Summer Show – Guy Bell/Alamy

Yet the visitors who flock to the Summer Exhibition ignore its detractors, making it the Academy’s most popular exhibition every year. Perhaps because instead of presenting forms of contemporary art that have already been filtered through the commercial exclusivity of art dealers, the groupthink of curators and marketers who want to turn all gallery visits into an ‘experience’, here are artists offering things made within their possibilities.

Unsurprisingly, it was Grayson Perry’s riotous, unbiased, wryly populist post-Brexity 2018 selection that attracted almost 300,000 visitors. Maybe it was just because Perry is on television a lot. But can the Summer Exhibition stand for something more? For centuries, the show has been a lightning rod for discussions about what is good and bad art. But the current cocktail of amateurs – fun, but often played for cheap laughs – and ‘established artists’ who steal the show by default risks reasserting what is supposedly ‘serious’ stuff, without much explanation as to why. The Academy may have given up on setting standards for art. But in any case, the public wants to see hundreds of artists outside the art world at work and have the opportunity to judge for themselves. We know what we like. Now let’s have a louder debate about why.

The summer exhibition can be seen at the Royal Academy, London W1 (, from June 18 to August 18

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