The Week in Culture: The bronze that hit a brick wall
Friday 18 June 2010
In the last few months, I've watched The Warriors as the sun set over London Fields, Blade Runner: The Director's Cut in a pub (complete with interval for buying drinks), Sweet Smell of Success at a film-school speakeasy and Casablanca on a friend's big screen. In fact, the last film for which I made a pilgrimage to the bright lights of Leicester Square was Sex and the City 2 – and the less said about that, the better. I'm not alone, either. Multiplexes, move over: these days discerning film fans are looking for more from their cinema experience than an enormous screen and overpriced popcorn.
We haven't had a really good Summer Exhibition scandal for years. The Royal Academy's annual show used to be the sparking point for any number of punch-ups, bad behaviour and disgrace. In recent years, that necessary function seems to have been taken over by the Turner Prize, and the Summer Exhibition has descended into a jolly, bazaar-like gathering from which only the occasional murmur of complaint emerges.
There are more Academicians than you know, and they all have the right to show work. What they don't have is the right to decide where or how it should be displayed, and this has always caused ructions. In the 18th century, artists used to vie for the honour of being displayed "below the line", or at eye-level; to be "skied", or placed high up, was an indignity which could lead to pictures being withdrawn in high dudgeon.
This year, a sculptor and Academician called James Butler, who has exhibited in the summer show every year since 1960, submitted a life-size bronze called Model Waiting. He is the second-longest-standing Academician, and his 50th year of exhibiting deserved, surely, a place of honour?
Alas, when Mr Butler arrived at the exhibition, he was horrified to find that his work had been placed, not in the galleries themselves, or in any place of honour, but in a mouldy back corridor where you had to go looking for it.
He remonstrated with Charles Saumarez Smith, secretary of the RA, at the annual dinner, who, utter gent that he is, "seemed to be sympathetic". However, Model Waiting is to stay where it is. "This work by James Butler benefits from being placed against a natural brick wall," said a spokeswoman, doing her best with the material at her disposal.
I don't object to James Butler's work, though I can see that many more serious-minded people than myself might think it unfashionable in style at best, and frightful kitsch at worst. It's an ongoing problem with the summer show. Should it be much like other exhibitions – pursue a theme, celebrate excellence, frame a generation? Or should it just put on show anything the Academicians and sundry hopefuls send in, and hope for the best?
I'm very much in favour of the hope-for-the-best approach. Some of the academicians, I must admit, strike me, year after year, as pretty dismal. But others, working out of the most immediate fashions, are very popular with the public, and highly admirable artists. Mary Fedden is always a delight; Ken Howard is a really impressive, old-fashioned craftsman of a painter, and, to my shame, I only ever get to see their work at the summer show.
To be honest, I wouldn't really want a summer show which was more rigorous, without its "oh God, look at that" moments, which had no space for a life-size bronze of a nude apparently waiting for a bus. And the best thing about the show? The never-mentioned, irresistible fact that you can actually buy most of it for your own lovely homes.
Let's see what power the critics really have
There was an unusual moment of critical unanimity like that assembled over Yann Martel's new novel, Beatrice and Virgil. No one knew where to look. The tale of a taxidermist's play about a monkey and a donkey which turns out to be an allegory of the Holocaust in the style of Waiting for Godot – I mean, shall I go on, or does it sound bad enough already?
The reviews were what is politely termed "mixed", by which is meant that nobody at all could think of anything good to say about it at all. Poor Mr Martel, who had at least gone to the trouble of beginning his novel with everything bad he could think of to say about his own work, in the vain hope of fending off criticism.
I don't want to dwell on Mr Martel's troubles, but it will be interesting to see whether so powerful a degree of negative agreement has any effect on sales. After all, his last novel, Life of Pi was one of the most popular novels of the decade, selling millions and being translated into dozens of languages. In normal circumstances, the successor could be expected to do a huge amount of business. We are always being told that book reviewers have little or no power or influence these days.
I don't know whether that's true or not, but the unanimous verdict that Beatrice and Virgil is the stinker to end all stinkers seems a good opportunity to test the theory.
Rudeness for posterity
The Tate's new exhibition, Rude Britannia, sets out to do something very unusual: to make its visitors laugh. The accompanying texts and the use of vulgar icons like Roger Mellie, of Viz magazine, don't belong to the usual way comic art is presented. It really wants to bring out a laugh.
It's a brave try, though not quite as successful as it perhaps hopes to be. But it did make me think that a joke in the visual arts, if it's a good one, stands an almost better chance of going on being funny than jokes in literature. There is hardly anything in literature that genuinely makes a modern reader laugh before 1800 or so – God, just think of Smollett, and shiver.
On the other hand, Gillray is genuinely hilarious still, and there are plenty of images in Hogarth that are real ripsnorters – the details of the Election series are a particular high point. It's a sobering thought that what audiences are going to be laughing at in a couple of hundred years' time is probably not The Office or the best of our comic novels, but the Fat Slags and Steve Bell.
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