3 out of 5 stars
On Wednesday 26 June, just as George Osborne was taking to his feet in the House of Commons to deliver the results of his Comprehensive Spending Review, I was starting my tour of this year's Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy.
As much as I wanted to see the exhibition, I didn't want to hear news of more swingeing cuts to public funding, including the arts.
Rumours had been in the air for weeks that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport itself might be closed. Fortunately, there was no such announcement but there was no good news from the Chancellor for the arts. A budget cut of 5% may seem as if the arts got off lightly, but bear in mind the previous review saw the budget slashed by a third, so there really wasn't much left to take.
These are challenging times for the arts, an area that is dependent on public funding for projects in nascent stages in order for them to flourish. So given the challenges, we really needed a strong Summer Exhibition to show the critics and the circling vultures that there is a community here worth supporting.
Sadly that's not what we got.
I was surprised, saddened at just how bland the works on show were. There were exceptions (thankfully) but so little of the collection showed any kind of verve, inventiveness or challenging commentary.
Instead abstract expression and naïve art dominated the exhibition. Sculpture did have a prominent place but too often these were decorative, with little to add to current culture. What does a ball of cables or a giant fluorescent pink Styrofoam tiger's head really add to the current artistic scene?
A couple of years ago the Royal Academy made a big noise about rehabilitating the art of drawing, including more works with that focus. That promise seems to have been left in the past though as there was little to show in that regard in this year's pieces on display.
A focus on portraiture was noticeable, though mostly in photography. It seemed an odd choice when there is such a strong desire to reject the obsession with celebrities and any navel-gazing vanity projects. Surely the rebellion would be in the re-emphasis on community, coming together and celebrating the honour of the everyday man and woman, rather than those we see on television?
There are many strengths to the Summer Exhibition, not least of which is its pattern of exhibiting new names alongside already established artists. The intensity of the exhibition also never wilts. There's an energy and a passion in having so many pieces crammed into every nook and cranny of Burlington House, the walls in each gallery covered with paintings, photography and sketches.
It is just such a shame that so few of the pieces were memorable.
An exception is El Anatsui's "Tsiatsia - Searching for connection" wall-hanging, which covers the front of the gallery. This piece, made from recycled aluminium, is a worthy winner of the Exhibition's award category.
The best of the exhibition was saved for the last room. Grayson Perry's series of tapestries "The Vanity of Small Differences" had a room set aside just for them. Here, finally, was the union of supreme craftsmanship and social commentary that I so hoped would dominate the exhibition. The tapestries, so beautifully designed and impeccably finished, showed the rise and fall of a fictional character, Tom Rakewell, through his life and through the class structure in Britain today. The pieces are as telling on taste and class in Britain today as they are brilliant.
Right now, we need art to speak out about the state of society or challenge itself with bold and creative ingenuity, if only to save itself. Sadly there was too little of that on show at this year's Summer Exhibition.
Until 18 August
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