There's nothing we British like more than a good row among artists. There was the so-called Art Quake of 1910, when The Times denounced the first exhibition of Post-Impressionism as "degenerate" and "the rejection of all that civilization has done". Then in 1935 Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, claimed Ben Nicholson's abstract reliefs had contracted "spiritual beri-beri" due to their "fatal defect of purity". It has always been the establishment versus the new.
But last week was different. Not only was the art establishment under attack for its keen espousal of avant-garde conceptual art, but the attacker-in-chief was a traditional figurative artist, complaining of the establishment's partiality. Stuart Pearson Wright, who won the £25,000 first prize at the National Portrait Gallery's BP Portrait Awards for The Six Presidents of the Royal Academy, a group portrait which features suited academics contemplating their mortality, symbolised by a dead chicken, used the occasion to proclaim that Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, should be sacked.
His misdemeanour? According to 25-year-old Pearson Wright, he is chief among the villainous members of the arts establishment who ignore young figurative artists and force them to choose between abandoning painting or surviving by "taking day jobs in Burger King".
"If such huge sums of public money are involved, this seems wrong and the public should have more of a say," said Pearson Wright. "I am going to do all I can to change this, and sacking Serota would be a step in the right direction."
Pearson Wright's view echoes those of the Stuckists, a group of painters who post regular manifestos complaining about the art establishment on the internet, and whose leader, Charles Thomson, stood unsuccessfully against the former Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, at the general election.
But as the Stuckists' work is widely considered banal and naive, and their complaints hysterical, they tend to be dismissed as the lunatic fringe. What really made a difference last week was not only Pearson Wright's new-found credibility, but that his attack came shortly after that of the playwright Tom Stoppard. He too questioned the new orthodoxy in his recent speech at the Royal Academy dinner. Then on Wednesday, the spotlight fell again on Nicholas Serota, when the director of Tate Modern, Lars Nittve, resigned, allegedly due to clashes with Serota about the vision for the galleries.
Serota's position at the Tate gives him unsurpassed influence in the contemporary art world. Through gallery acquisitions and his opinions, he can make or break a career. But there is one man who comes a close second: Charles Saatchi, the advertising tycoon and art collector. Together they have embraced "cutting edge" art and their patronage has made its leading players among the most courted figures in the arts today. Artists such as Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and Tracey Emin are celebrities. The Turner Prize secures almost as many column inches as the Booker.
As Saatchi is the Greta Garbo of the art world, and Sir Nicholas Serota was out of the country last week, it was left to Sandy Nairne, director of national and international programmes at the Tate, and Norman Rosenthal, exhibitions secretary at the Royal Academy, to defend the establishment corner. Not only was the controversy "a load of utter bullshit", said Rosenthal, but it needed to be "nipped in the bud". All too many "things made in the name of art", he said, "are kitsch". The job of critics and curators was telling the difference. This, he said, he and his colleagues did "with great responsibility, through an international perspective, not a Little Englander one. It is not possible to paint like Turner these days. Indeed, it wasn't possible for Turner to paint like Titian. Art is about new territory."
Only Charles Saumarez Smith, director of the National Portrait Gallery, where the BP Portrait is hung each year, conceded that there was an argument for change. "For an unusually long period of time the art world has been dominated by one particular brand of practice," he said. "As a result there is a danger of this becoming the new orthodoxy." The fact that visitor numbers to the Portrait Award have doubled as a result of the row, he says, proves that "more people are interested in painting than in cutting edge art".
He points to a whole tranch of 20th-century figurative artists who were once dismissed as "oddball" but are now "seen to be fantastically dominant". The list is headed by Stanley Spencer, whose exhibition at Tate Britain closes this evening, having attracted around 90.000 visitors.
What of the painters themselves? Charles Thomson of the Stuckists heartily applauded Pearson Wright for "his courage" in joining the crusade against "the cul de sac of idiocy generated by the Serota-Saatchi axis". But the most eloquent – and influential – advocate for change was perhaps the Glasgow-based former war artist to Bosnia, Peter Howson. "Art has rules," says the 43-year-old painter. "If you break them, you are on to a false trail."Reuse content