Why I Love & Hate the Summer Exhibition

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With over 11,000 entries this year, the Royal Academy’s 245th Summer Exhibition is by far one of the largest and most prestigious events of the British art calendar.  For hundreds of years the Summer Exhibition has attracted artists from all over the world to enter in their thousands; their work judged by some of the most successful contemporary artists of the present day and, if successful, displayed on the sacred walls of the Royal Academy for the whole world to see.
Of course, there is an entry fee and with only a tiny percentage of submitted works actually accepted, hopeful artists are more likely to be rejected. So why bother?

The general consensus, it seems, is that once you’ve had work hung in the Royal Academy you are officially a ‘successful artist’. It’s one of the highest artistic accolades to be selected; your work is displayed amongst pieces by famous artists (this year’s show includes works by Anselm Kiefer, Chuck Close and Richard Long) and has the potential to be recognised and even bought by some of the world’s most prolific art collectors. Every year the Summer Exhibition is seen by over 200,000 people, and anyone and everyone can enter which means that, in theory, it is completely non-elitist. It is a refreshing opportunity for the general public to encounter a recognised contemporary collection of work that steers away from the pretensions of the obtuse avant-garde scene that is more commonly associated with ‘modern art’ and instead speaks to the masses.

This is all great, surely? It’s accessible, it’s representative of artists from all different backgrounds, there certainly isn’t a ‘house style’, it’s a highly selective process so only displays the very best… I could go on. Yet, despite all of this, I paid £8 to get into the show to find myself wandering around and feeling completely indifferent to about 60% of the work; at least 10% I have to admit I despised with a passion. Obviously there is a clear degree of subjectivity here and I’m very willing to admit that my personal taste is hardly the be all and end all. The impossible matter of distinguishing good art from bad art falls into the hands of successful practising artists, this year headed by Norman Ackroyd. Although you’d expect that between them they must have a pretty good idea of which works are worthy of being exhibited in the Royal Academy’s hallowed halls, I still managed to notice an awful lot of rubbish. I found the exhibition infuriating; the works don’t have any sort of explanation attached to them, only a number corresponding to an artist, title and price, so our opinions on them are formed purely on aesthetics. How can the Royal Academy afford to put so much tat on their walls when they turn away such a huge amount of submitted work?
It could also be argued that the exhibition is, in a sense, highly regressive. I mean, we all love a good painting, but it’s safe to say that the Summer Exhibition is first and foremost a picture show and I think this is all it will ever be. Yes they have a room dedicated to photography, and even one to architecture, but it’s impossible to say that the show is representative of contemporary art when it fails to represent installation, video and performance art. Even the traditional form of sculpture is barely featured. Paintings take centre stage, and they definitely don’t shy away from this, but through this focus on framed works I begin to question whether there’s a noticeable progression from the Summer Exhibition in 2003 to the one that I saw yesterday.

What is most annoying is that, in the face of all of this, none of my problems with the show will stop me from probably entering a piece sometime in the future. Undoubtedly there is an overhanging power of prestige in the arts, and even though places like the Royal Academy encourage institutional art – art that is defined so by its place within a gallery walls, the Summer Exhibition will no doubt continue to attract thousands of artists young and old for years to come.

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition runs until the 18th August, student tickets are priced at £8.

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