London: Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition

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By Kate Palfrey

Photo supplied

Even the Telegraph is rude about the RA Summer Exhibition: “How can so many people produce so much bad art?” griped Charles Spencer in June. The Times reckoned it was “truly ghastly”, and the Guardian complained of “Superannuated sculptors, paltry painters and a ragtag of would-be titans.”

They’re not wrong, but they’ve missed the point. The Royal Academy’s annual sale of current British art – the ‘Exhibition’ title is merely a disguise for a regular augmentation of coffers – is not for the critics. Now in its 242nd year, this oversized market hall of mediocre stuff is nothing but a staple event in the social calendars of (a) provincial middle-aged women who make a day trip up to town to take in the exhibition and then tea at Fortnum’s just across the road, and (b) Grazia readers who enjoy judging the outfits of the gaggle of celebrities who turn up to the opening in ‘arty’ ensembles.

The bits of things on display inside – 10ft gorillas crafted from coathangers, outdated abstract offerings, some godawful scribbling from that pretender Tracey Emin – merely provide conversational starters from which it’s quite easy to arrive at more comfortable topics such as the state of the stained glass in the church hall (category a) or the latest scandal in the fashion world (category b).

Unfortunately when I went in June I didn’t know this, and arrived at Burlington House with a naive expectation of seeing something artistically interesting. All I got was neck ache from an earnest attempt to examine every single one of the 1,267 works on display, an earbashing from an old dear who much preferred the ‘proper art’ John Singer Sargents upstairs (I agreed but didn’t appreciate the tirade), and a considerable hole in my finances from an overpriced lunch in the courtyard. Oh, and spots in front of my eyes from those horrible little orange labels that they stick on the frames of things that people have been silly enough to buy.

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