Royal Academy Summer Exhibition review – a gasping death-rattle of conservative mediocrity

<span>An establishment club of minor artists … Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.</span><span>Photograph: David Parry/Royal Academy of Arts</span>
An establishment club of minor artists … Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.Photograph: David Parry/Royal Academy of Arts

This year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is best enjoyed as a mirror of the numbed, aimless condition of Britain after 14 years of Conservative government. It is a gasping death-rattle of mediocrity, a miserable garden party of vapid good taste. There are no laughs and precious few glimpses of good art. Nothing points to the future. All you will learn from it is that the small “c” conservatism of British middle-class culture has reached the end of its rope.

“Art Is in All of Us”, affirms a typically profound placard by Bob and Roberta Smith RA. If only. That radical-sounding statement might seem to promise a show that’s a wild, democratic, free-for-all romp. After all there are more than 1,700 works of art here, apparently chosen pretty much by flipping a coin. But it is almost all the same, all tepid, polite and pointless. In the same room as Smith’s platitude is a sculpture of two model ships with the leaden one-note wordplay title Worship-Warship and a pair of ugly, kitsch ceramic deer. For a moment I thought these were examples of outsider art. Bless. They are actually by Richard Wilson RA and Cathie Pilkington RA. Either these eminent artists have totally run out of ideas or they have submitted any old random items lying around their studios.

Clubby cosiness descends into unconscious self-parody in one gallery, where a fireplace with bric-a-brac on it is fixed to a wall. Elsewhere, plangent violin sounds emanate from an installation of a chamber orchestra whose empty seats and abandoned instruments are so, so sad. Next to that is a big, average painting of Stowe, the country house in Buckinghamshire, by Anthony Eyton RA. It all seems to be going a bit Brideshead: soon Hooper and his class will march in, you can almost hear Jeremy Irons intone, to put VAT on private schools.

There are enough wan landscapes to fill an actual field: puffy clouds, neat gardens. Stumps up and off to the pavilion. It’s as if the selectors have knocked on the doors in every southern commuter town and village to solicit for entries. Oh and don’t forget the pets. There are pampered dogs and cats everywhere.

A few decent works crop up as if by accident. Anselm Kiefer’s colossal woodcut of sunflowers with black centres, nightmare blooms incised deeply into paper, penetrate your imagination like ghosts on a battlefield sprouting from dead soldiers’ bones. Yet its hanging – next to a series of small still life flower arrangements – is ridiculous. This German brilliance surrounded by British vacuity in the Fawlty Towers of exhibitions makes you wonder – however did we win the war?

The Royal Academy always has resembled the Conservative party, not at prayer but at brush. Both were founded in the 18th century. And both have spent the last couple of decades pretending to reinvent themselves. The RA appointed younger, groovier academicians, confessed its historic links with enslavement and empire and got Grayson Perry to curate one year’s summer show for a laugh. But this exhibition suggests that has all been a bit of a sham. Deep down, this is still an establishment club for minor artists. This year they have their way.

Just because the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition has been going on since 1769 does not mean it must continue forever. It doesn’t reflect what’s new or great: the random appearance of fine artists is just a waste. All the best stuff here – there are typically strong works by Georg Baselitz, Rose Wylie RA, Sean Scully RA, Frank Bowling RA – would look better if they weren’t surrounded by dross.

The Royal Academy summer show must have been amazing in the 1800s, when Turner added a final killer dab of red to a seascape on “varnishing day” to outshine Constable. Conservatism, too, had its day, back when Disraeli was teasing Gladstone. All such a long time ago, now. Yet still the Royal Academy curses each summer with its wretched Exhibition. I vote against it.