In an attempt to prove myself capable of being a competent Books and Exhibitions editor, this summer I saw quite a lot of art. As such, I could now knowledgeably expound upon the excellent Tracey Emin or the stirring Walter Hammershoi. I could regale you with tales of all manner of enjoyable bits and pieces at Gateshead’s Baltic. I could produce an acerbic expose of the frankly appalling standard of the pavement chalk drawings currently being produced by some elements of Gloucester’s homeless community.
Frankly, though, I don’t want to write about any of those things. With a glorious inevitability, they were all eclipsed by the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. I’m hugely fond, and have been for some time, of this particular cultural institution. It does, after all, bear an endearing likeness of the ancient, decrepit, Tory grandee who puts on an admirable show of pride, dignity and deportment even as he dribbles down his own, and adjacent, lapels in the House of Lords.
This is because I’m increasingly convinced that the old duffer is in fact the most cunning piece of contemporary art in existence. It’s a huge and hilarious post-modern joke that revels in how seriously its ramshackle self-importance, nonsensically Victorian attitude and general downright silliness are taken by the attending public. I imagine that somewhere deep beneath London, a crack team of surrealist-anarchist art pranksters, probably led by Marcel Duchamp, Peter Cooke and Salvador Dali – not Banksy, please, never Banksy – are watching CCTV footage of the exhibition rooms on a bank of black and white televisions.
They see you and me drift from ecellent pieces by artists at the tops of their respective games, to things that look like, and probably are, the products of old ladies’ watercolour clubs. Throughout, as we pass from the sublime to the ridiculous to the downright dreadful, we maintain the same expression of dull, unthinking, dim appreciation. Duchamp and his cronies, down in the control room, fall about laughing.
The Summer Exhibition is an occasion tailor-made for a kind of culture-induced rictus grin. We wear it at the RSC, at the Festival Hall and at the Royal Academy; it’s completely pointless, incontrovertibly middle-class, horrifically British, and absolutely, hilariously, wonderful.
I fully intend to keep going to the Royal Academy every year, chuckling knowingly, until the moment when I, standing next to a man with medals on his jacket and a small mammal asleep on his upper lip, gazing dazedly at a small, gaudily-framed picture of a yacht in a tranquil bay, forget that it’s all a joke and start taking it seriously. You should do likewise.