They buy it, but do they get it?

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With the current ascendancy of British conceptualism, it is easy to neglect a more traditional strength. British "painting" has never been more buoyant, but how is it perceived in an international context? Judging by an exhibition currently at the Royal College of Art, little has changed since the 1950s when Clement Greenberg damned it as "decorative".

The collection of British painting built up over the past 16 years by Susan Kasen and Robert Summer is billed as "a candid and revealing look at the state of recent British art". This it is not. It is, rather, a personal assessment of the best Britain has to offer. But it is through just such personal views that we can learn the general consensus. If this is British painting as the Americans see it, and as it must stand or fall against the art more commonly portrayed worldwide as the cutting edge of British creativity, then we should worry.

It might seem gratuitous to pick holes in any collection. In this case, however, the gaps are so serious and the influence of the collection so potentially powerful, that it is a worthwhile, even necessary exercise. Certainly there are some big names here. The background is set with classics by Sickert and Bomberg. It is the generic groupings, however, which give a clue to the collection's failings. The exhibition is arranged with seven such headings, ranging from "reality distilled" to "the legacy of pop art". The fact that such contrived groupings were felt necessary suggests that the paintings are unable to speak for themselves. In effect, this is a clever device which allows the collectors to place works by big names alongside those by unknown or lesser artists and in so doing to elevate the latter. Thus the derivative landscapes of Lucy Jones stand alongside Bomberg and Kossoff, the facile allegories of Nicholas Jolly beside Carel Weight, Steven Campbell and Stephen Conroy. That said, there are a number of interesting discoveries here - notably Anna Mazzotta and Mark Hampson -but too often the selection is fundamentally flawed.

It is important to applaud Kasen and Summer for their enlightened patronage of our younger painters. It is unfortunate, however, that they are not yet acquainted with, or have chosen to ignore, so many other painters more worthy of their attention. Without such voices as those named above any collection claiming to embrace the character of contemporary British painting remains incomplete. "Without Susan Kasen and Robert Summer the present complexion of the contemporary British art scene would be very different," eulogises the catalogue essay. True, but on the present showing that complexion seems somewhat sallow, merely confirming the perceived international viewpoint that British painting is, as it has always been, parochial, charming and safe.

n `An American Passion', Royal College of Art, London, to 3 Dec