The English summer is always full of delights, Pimm’s, open gardens to visit if the rain holds off, and a trip to the RA Summer Show an art feast since 1769, showing over 5,000 works including printing, sculpture, film, photography and architecture. This year 14,000 works were submitted, 1,500 shortlisted. I was fortunate to have two paintings nominated. I read that the theme of this year’s show is ‘Climate’ and entered a self-portrait in a heat-wave and a still life showing desiccated objects.
I was, like other semi-finalists, full of hope, but didn’t get in. No invite to the traditional ‘varnishing day’ and cream-tea. Never mind, I have a painting accepted by the New English Art Club, at the Mall Gallery on June 23rd, and sold a lot of work recently. I’ve been in the Summer Show twice and there is always another chance – or so I thought until I saw the current RA Magazine; as a white person it seems my artistic future may be about vanishing rather than varnishing.
The front cover shows a Nigerian Nimba mask. Inside we are promised, ‘Radical change is in the air at the Summer Exhibition, as this year’s co-ordinator Yinka Shonibare RA aims to redraw the cultural map’. To, ‘Situate pan-African artists in the heart of a British cultural institution.’ He’s certainly done that and the theme is apparently not climate, which isn’t mentioned but magic, as in Yoruba spirituality. An artist called Jade Montserrat is given space to ‘Reclaim the idea of being a witch.’
In a feature called, ‘The Magic Touch,’ Kadish Morris, a black Guardian journalist, lists demands; capitalise B in black, return the Benin bronzes to Nigeria, pay reparations for slavery from Britain. (As Europeans started slaving abroad in the 11th century, England in the 16th, it will be a big bill.) She also insists that the 253rd RA Summer Show must, ‘Reclaim the walls of art history for pan-African’ artists and minorities. ‘Minorities’ in quotes paradoxically suggesting there is no dominant culture anymore.
Those worthy of selection also include the, ‘neurodiverse, disabled and self-taught’. Some of the greatest artists including Van Gogh, Cezanne, Degas, Francis Bacon, Basquiat and Ai Wei Wei were self-taught but they are now seen as a whole new category of oppressed victims. The RA in its attempt to ‘Counter the devaluing of art practices from other cultures’ invited charities to get involved and Morris says, ‘Fifty notable artists of colour were invited specifically by Shonibare to show work.’ So much for open competition. Eager entrants once complained about the space taken by a few RAs who were automatically given space, but opportunity for the general public in non-oppressed groups must now be considerably smaller.
The show is all about race. Morris points out that the RA opened in 1777 the year that a slave ship left Liverpool for the Caribbean, so it must be ‘significant’ that the exhibition will show work by self-taught artist Bill Traylor a black American born in 1865. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1807 but no matter, the UK and the US can be casually lumped into one to make a point about white nastiness. Traylor, ‘Is now going to be central to the exhibition at the RA,’ says Shonibare. The show also presents a vision of the future governed by identity politics or ‘intersectionality,’ where competing groups vie for levels of oppression, compensation and power.
‘Taking into account the RA’s legacy as a historically white institution,’ writes Morris, ‘this year’s exhibition will reject ‘homogeneity and embrace diversity.’ It firmly places Yoruba art up against Donatello. In this world of woke, a carved African mask is equal to a Renaissance portrait. ‘The glories of western art’ are over, even the word ‘Renaissance’ must be contested as nothing uniquely significant ever happened in Europe, or at least as the RA magazine says, ‘European and African tradition – one is not superior to the other’.
Do not refer to anything foreign as ‘primitive’. A recent exhibition of ‘The Tribal and the Modern’ at MOMA in New York was condemned as ‘An example of Western egoism’. Expunge from your mind the image of Sir Kenneth Clark now as damned as Jim Davidson and Roy Chubby Brown, in his series Civilisation, sitting by a Roman aqueduct, musing that western civilisation survived ‘by the skin of its teeth,’ after the Romans left.
In his recent Salisbury Review article, White Man’s Art, James Monteith reminds us how Clark contrasted the prow of an invading Viking ship with a classical statue, arguing that while both were works of art; one was born out of ‘fear and darkness’ while the other ‘took shape in an image of harmonised proportion and reason,’ and therefore embodied a higher state of civilisation. He also mentions Clive Bell’s essay, Civilisation, which stated that for civilisation to develop tribal custom, superstition and taboo must be replaced by reason, self-criticism and objective pursuit of the truth. They must also be literate.
We are now dismantling the dominant culture in favour of weaker cultures in the name of diversity but often it seems out of sheer English embarrassment at our own cultural riches and success. This cultural cringe, the lack of self-confidence in our own culture is being passed on to the young who leave school and university imbued with the idea that their guilty past must be cancelled, and it seems the less they know of it the better. History if it is taught at all can now only be comparative.
The architecture room is hung by Ghanaian-British Sir David Adjaye, OBE, recipient of the Royal Gold Medal last year (the honours come thick and fast for members of oppressed groups) and includes a ‘soundscape’ by Ceyda Oskay called, Migration Songs. In a piece about whether A level architecture should be taught in school, Professor Frosso Pimenides, Co-Director of a BSc architecture course at UCL, says a firm no. ‘I don’t want students to begin an architecture degree knowing about architecture,’ he says, a sentiment shared by almost every UK fine-art course, even the Courtauld Institute which is now embracing, ‘Critical race art history,’ and establishing a ‘decolonised’ curriculum. Students must be unburdened by white middle-class ‘cultural capital,’ anything else is shameful.
Who would have thought that the RA Summer Exhibition, once as benign as a bare-foot walk on a summer lawn should now reveal how the Marxist idea of a ‘counter-hegemony,’ has marched through our institutions? As Gramsci put it, ‘In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches, and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.’ He might be a bit baffled that European socialism has been remodelled as US style identity politics, galvanised by an ugly anti-white racism.