The Critics: Exhibitions: No room to swing a painted cat

Summer Exhibition Royal Academy, London Rembrandt by Himself National Gallery, London Rembrandt by Himself National Gallery, London
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The Independent Culture
For those of you who have laboured under the belief that the Royal Academy's "Summer Exhibition" was the last redoubt of Little Englishness and artistic reaction, a surprise. According to Michael Kenny - Michael Kenny RA, that is - the show is actually an unheralded piece of curatorial agitprop. Writing in this year's illustrated catalogue, Kenny (who is treasurer of the Academy and has the six pictures in the show allowed to each Academician) suggests that the "Summer Exhibition" is greeted by an annual barrage of critical eye-rolling and hollow laughter because critics - shaped "to a large extent [by] Marxist art theory" - are unable to cope with the shockingly egalitarian nature of its hang.

"The Summer Exhibition disregards the sacred cows of contemporary art: the minimalist so-called `white-cube' approach to hanging exhibitions, and a highly selective area of postmodernist orthodoxy as instanced in the Turner Prize shortlists," says Kenny. "The Summer Exhibition breaks the rules of contemporary norms and, in my view, that is what irritates most of its critics".

It is always encouraging to find oneself in a minority, so let me say that the irritation of this particular critic has nothing to do with the hang of the "Summer Exhibition". Cluttered hangs are not necessarily bad things. Visit the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia and you will find Renoirs and Cezannes hung six deep and interspersed with teaspoons, fire-irons and whatever other diurnal bits and pieces happened to catch the eye of the museum's founder. The effect is bizarre, but it is also revelatory. Nor are all modern painters necessarily minimalist in their tastes. Peter Blake - designer of the record sleeve for Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and another RA with six works in the Academy's show - has spent much of the past 10 years championing the over-filled wall in the belief that more, contrary to modernist rumour, is not necessarily less.

What these various madnesses have in common is a method. Both Blake and the Barnes Collection stack 'em high in the belief that there is some active aesthetic gain to be made from exploring the congruities and incongruities between artworks hung closely together, and that a fashionably empty wall carries a quite different charge from one that is covered in art. For all Michael Kenny's ex post facto defence of the hang of the "Summer Exhibition" as courageously egalitarian, the truth is that there is nothing of this kind of idealism behind it. The show's clutter is simply an historical problem that nobody has yet got around to fixing.

When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768, its exhibitions were limited to the works of 36 Academicians. Since all of these painted in a style that could loosely be called "academic" - that is to say, informed by the aesthetic teachings of the Academy - there was some obvious point to seeing their works hung together. But with the RA's role as the arbiter of contemporary British taste eclipsed a century or more ago, its hanging policy has become ever less focused. The result is the dog's dinner that is served up each June on the walls of Burlington House: a thousand or so works - some big, some small, some by Academicians, some not, a few by famous painters, most by complete unknowns, painted in every imaginable style (apart, of course, for the genuinely contemporary) and a few that are not - with nothing to connect them other than an entirely coincidental proximity to each other.

Is there anything wrong with all this? For fear of sounding like a smartypants critic, I can only say: the evidence of one's eyes. Kenny's defence of the Academy's hang skilfully misses the point. The problem is less with how much is on the walls than with what it consists of. Some of the art is good, but detaching it from the general roar of background kitsch takes time and will. (The fact that some works do manage to make themselves heard can leave you with a new-found respect for the artists who made them. I had never realised the true genius of Sandra Blow until seeing this year's show.) Some of the art is so bad that it is almost worth paying just to see it: allow me to recommend Beachy Head in the Distance by Jeffery Camp RA in this regard. Watching R B Kitaj's Sandra Five, A Magazine (pounds 500,000) trying to sell itself in the same show as Davina Jackson's entirely likeable The Girl and the Bird (pounds 470) does make you scratch your head at the vagaries of the art market. But moments of whimsy are not really what the "Summer Exhibition" should be about.

Consider that the Royal Academy's main galleries represent a sizeable chunk of the potential public showing space in central London, and that the "Summer Exhibition" occupies them for 10 weeks. Consider then that, once again, not a single young British artist of note (and probably no Goldsmiths' graduate under the age of 50) has chosen to exhibit in the show; that "contemporary", for the purposes of the Academy's Selection Committee, appears to mean any style up to and including Op Art; that for all the architectural maquettes and etched pussycats with red dots on them, there are no video works in this year's "Summer Exhibition"; and the idea that the Royal Academy should go on holding the "Summer Exhibition" in the name of tradition - or, God help us, egalitarianism - may strike you as ridiculous.

The thought even seems to have occurred to the Academy, which has tried (in the words of its president) to "give a greater focus" to this year's show by showing Hockney's new series of paintings of the Grand Canyon in its midst. Like all other RAs, Hockney has been limited to six paintings. Unlike other RAs, these have been treated with uncommon civility: given their own room and hung, one to a wall, in what looks suspiciously like one of Kenny's reviled white cubes. They have, in other words, been treated like art. Now there's an idea for the "Summer Exhibition".

`Summer Exhibition': Royal Academy, W1 (0171 300 8000) to 15 August

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