Speech Given at a Dinner for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition – 8th June 2010

Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe no else here has even a ghost of such a problem. Perhaps you are thinking that I’m deluded and ill; perhaps you are all far too grown up and mature for such silly issues ever to come between you and the ability to meet a painting or work of art squarely. The artists here certainly won’t share this problem because the power to rise above self-consciousness is almost a defining quality of artists. Artists are superb at switching off awareness of self. As you can tell if you watch one eat.

Others of you however, fellow non-artists, might understand what I am talking about. And talking is the problem. While I could not be more delighted that we live in a verbal world, I do understand the pleasure in occasionally laying language aside and letting some other non-verbal part of our brains take over. For you cannot explain a work of art in words. A painter makes a painting out of paint – paint is its language. If you can define it, nail it, comprehend it in words then something is rather wrong. A work of art is precisely that which remains when you have run out of words to describe it. The works that move us most are those that have the most life and power in them when the talking stops. If an artist could have said it in words, well then they would have done. Instead they have said it in paint, or stone, or bronze, or glass or whatever medium they may have chosen. “All art is at once surface and symbol,” Oscar Wilde wrote. “Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

I think it is a relief to know that paintings and sculptures are not crossword puzzles to be solved or allegories to be read or tests to be passed, but it still does not make it easier to walk around a public gallery without being aware of the others there and without being aware of oneself and the figure one cuts. I think that is why so many people look cross in art galleries. They are either scowling at those loud, disrespectful parties of continental schoolchildren, or they are pursing their lips at a fellow Briton they deem to be showing off or they are frowning at someone who, like a bad golfer, is ahead of them and playing through too slowly. Or perhaps they are looking cross because it is art and art is supposed, isn’t it, to be serious and important and therefore demands a serious and important face?

Maybe the technology will save us. With earphones on and lost in an audio commentary we are perhaps more likely to close out the outside world and be left alone with the art work, which is what we want. And you don’t even need the audio commentary, with only the earphones you can zone out of the embarrassing present and into the artwork.

I mustn’t go too far. I raise the matter in the hope of clearing the air and letting those who also feel it enjoy the relief of fellowship. I am not completely crippled by this embarrassment problem, nor I think does it stop me from enjoying art more and more as each year passes. Nor clearly does it stop most of us. More people are going to galleries than ever before in our history. They go with excited anticipation and they go prepared to shed any preconceptions, prejudices or problems with Art with a capital A. The queues that form every single day in the courtyard here, and outside the Tate, the National and other galleries, museums and exhibition spaces show that the public enthusiasm and curiosity for art is enormous and growing.

In an increasingly infantilised world where so much seems to be split into good or bad, correct or incorrect, acceptable or unacceptable, where complex ideas are chopped up for public consumption like food chopped up for a child, where so much is hygienic, attainable, safe, sugared, assimilable, digestible, pasteurised, homogenised and sanitised, in such a world our appetite has never been greater for the complex, the ambiguous, the challenging, the untamed, the sharp, the peculiar, the surprising, the dangerous, the dirty, the difficult, the untameable, the elusive, the unsafe and the unknowable. In other words, for art. And to confront it, all we need do is to forget ourselves and our embarrassments and find a way to engage face to face. When we are in the galleries, we can all be Oscar, we can all raise our eyes to a canvas and encounter it fearlessly, with humour and grace and zest and not a trace of embarrassment. It is the adventure of a lifetime and there are few better places in the world in which to embark on such an adventure than here, where art and artists rule.

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One comment on “Speech Given at a Dinner for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition – 8th June 2010”

  1. Paula_Python says:

    Love you Stephen. We need more people like you.
    (clapping!)

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