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Visual arts: What Norman really means to the RA

As the Royal Academy prepares to meet in private session to decide the fate of its embattled exhibitions secretary, David Lister profiles Norman Rosenthal, the man who made a `Sensation' of the stuffiest show in town

At a recent press conference held at the Royal Academy to discuss the controversies over the "Sensation" exhibition and the Myra Hindley painting, Norman Rosenthal was asked if any art could be immoral.

It was a "set-up" question, with the next day's headline in mind, and the Royal Academy's outspoken exhibitions secretary leapt into the trap.

No, he replied unequivocally, no work of art can ever be immoral. The artist Tom Phillips, chairman of the exhibitions committee, was sitting beside him, and carefully added: "What Norman really means is that, if something is immoral, it cannot be seen as having the stature of art." Put like that, it sounded utterly sensible, but the headlines focused on Norman's pithier version. Life might be easier for the 51-year-old Rosenthal if he had a minder permanently attached to say "What Norman really means..."

We could then know what Norman really meant when he offered Damien Hirst membership of the Royal Academy (later unconvincingly denied by Rosenthal); what he really meant when he chose to fill the Royal Academy with the Saatchi collection of Young British Artists in preference to works by Royal Academicians; what he really meant by including a painting of Hindley in that exhibition; what he really meant by insulting John Ward, RA, in a recent BBCtv programme and allegedly allowing that same programme to ridicule veteran artist Victor Pasmore.

It is, on the surface, a bulging charge sheet, which is why Rosenthal will be "discussed" at the RA's private council meeting today. Sources say the likely outcome is a formal letter of censure expressing the Academicians' concern.

Most notably they are upset over the recent BBC Omnibus programme that included Rosenthal's comments on Ward, a 79-year-old figurative painter: "What is the point of painting a picture unless it is going to change the world? With so many members of the RA, who are the artists who are going to last? John Ward passionately believes in what he is doing and somehow thinks he is making real art. Maybe I am wrong and he is right, and the world will suddenly declare John Ward RA to be a great artist, but at this moment in time I doubt it."

Ward told the press: "I want his balls. I shall go on campaigning to get him sacked."

Other Academicians were more incensed about a shot of Victor Pasmore, who is not well, looking doddery and incapable. Rosenthal had no direct responsibility for this, but was heavily involved in the making of the programme, and Academicians feel he should have vetoed that cameo. Of the three Academicians who have resigned in the past month - Michael Sandle, Craigie Aitchison and Gillian Ayres - two cite the treatment of Pasmore as one of their chief reasons for going. "Sensation", Myra and Rosenthal are the other reasons.

It is clear that Rosenthal's bullish personality and cutting-edge artistic tastes sit uneasily with the Royal Academy. He speaks his mind; he thinks aloud, sometimes in jest, sometimes in naivete. He is a champion and friend of Charles Saatchi and the Young British Artists and he is as enamoured of the most radical conceptualism as he is of the water colours in the RA's summer show.

In fact, considerably more so. Rosenthal for a long period had weekly breakfasts with Nicholas Serota, head of the Tate Gallery and founder of the Turner Prize, and the pair have had considerable sway on fashioning tastes in contemporary art.

Rosenthal points to critical raves on "Sensation" and its striking hanging in the contrasting surround of the Royal Academy to justify his attempt to bring the cutting edge - warts, hype and all - to a different audience.

That the dissenters have kept quiet for so long is attributable to the rather important fact that it is largely thanks to his strokes of brilliance that the Royal Academy has survived.

When he moved there from the ICA in 1977, the institution was moribund, lacking both money and a philosophy. He provided both, with exhibitions both radical ("A New Spirit in Painting" in 1981), conservative ("American Art in the 20th Century" in 1993) and illuminating (the two exhibitions on pop art and photography), as well as the proverbial blockbuster - Monet in 1991 - seen by 700,000 visitors.

His many international contacts have resulted in the Royal Academy beating other British galleries to major international exhibitions. The contacts include his wife of eight years, Manuela Marques, a curator at the Prado in Madrid.

His late marriage seems to have imbued him with an enthusiasm that is another of his most immediate characteristics. As he said in an interview last month: "Art is nothing compared to life. Nothing is more beautiful than a tree. I discovered that this summer. No work of art can compete with a tree. But art is a fantastic thing because it helps you look at a tree."

He told the same interviewer: "I don't mind people saying `you are stupid', but I do mind incredibly if people question my integrity."

A man of influence and integrity who brings pickled shark to the home of the summer exhibition, sounds off without thinking about a septuagenarian painter (who is also one of his employers) and waxes lyrical about a tree: Rosenthal is a refreshing one-off among the art world's generally more reserved and secretive ruling clique.

Today this major international player, whom many believe to have saved the Royal Academy from obscurity, is likely to be disciplined like a naughty schoolboy.

It will not have escaped his notice that the job of general director of the English National Opera is vacant. From exhibitions secretary at the RA to boss of the ENO might seem an illogical step. But Rosenthal is as passionate about opera as he is about art; he applied for the Royal Opera House chief executive post and sits on the ROH board; and by tonight he may no longer feel that his future lies at Burlington House.