Your Royal Highness, Your Grace, My Lord Bishop, Your Excellencies, Honoured President, Academicians, Lords, Ladies, Gentlemen, artists, art lovers, friends, trustees, donors, distinguished guests and assorted media scum. I rise to my feet on this occasion with a due sense of the honour that has been accorded me and not a little fear and an – I hope – becoming sense of unworthiness. For I am not an artist. Those of you that are artists are the most important people in this room. I do not say that out of sycophancy, it is in this academy a constitutional fact. There are many societies and institutions in Britain where you as artists would come lower down the social order than estate agents, debt collectors or even television actors and bankers, but not here. In the press, in much of television, in bars, clubs and workplaces all over the country artists only usually feature in conversation when they have been committed some perceived outrage against public sensibility, gullibility or decency. Otherwise they are grudgingly tolerated, faintly patronised, clumsily misunderstood or cheerfully ignored. I cannot speak for artists in knowing whether this is a good thing or a bad, some of you may prefer it that way. And of course no one of you can speak for all artists, for if ever there were a diverse collection of recalcitrant, cussed and bloody-minded individualists it is artists: one artist alone is a political party, two artists together are a rebellion, three artists in the same room are a civil war…. But my point is that whatever the position of the artist in the wider world, your position here is paramount. The administrators, financiers, public figures, the great, the good, the donors, the supporters, the mighty, the famous and the fabulous here are all in this place your submissive underlings.
To have been appointed a Trustee of this glorious institution I count as one of the great honours of my life, a life spent looking at pictures and art works with the deepest pleasure but also often with the deepest embarrassment. I will return to the question of embarrassment in a moment. First I want to summon to the feast a figure who is never far away when we talk of art, but is especially close on this exact occasion. I expect you are all familiar with the 1881 painting “A Private View at the Royal Academy” by William Frith. It depicts this very evening, the opening of the Summer Exhibition, 130 years ago. If you don’t know it, you can see it here in the John Madejski Fine Rooms, where it hangs. Frith depicts the fashionable, the artistic, the grand, the curious and the august all gathered in this very place in that High Victorian summer: they are looking at pictures, but mostly of course they are looking at each other, and many of them only have eyes for the one figure who dominates the canvas. He is a tall, elegant and charismatic young man, with a lily in his buttonhole, a catalogue in his hand and a look of unembarrassed and unselfconscious assurance in his eyes. He is of course Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde.
Who was Oscar Wilde at that moment? His collected poems might have been moderately well received that year, but he was only two and half years down from Oxford, had written no plays, no books and no essays worth noting. Despite this and by virtue of personality and influence alone he was already famous enough to have inspired Gilbert and Sullivan to write Patience, an operetta that poked fun at him and his circle. And he was well known enough to dominate Frith’s enormous canvas. He occupies so important a position in the painting because he was one of the first figures and certainly the most articulate, to raise art from a hobby, a taste, an enthusiasm or an extra in life, to the status of a moral philosophy: he privileged art as the primary and central mode of human expression, the shortest path to the truth and to happiness, the highest and most important pursuit, calling or achievement to which humanity could aspire. But of course the more important art is to us, the more self-conscious we are when confronting it.
I mentioned embarrassment earlier. I think it is surprising how rarely the issue of the embarrassment inherent in engaging with art is addressed, especially in Britain where embarrassment might be said to be our national emotion. And it is peculiarly an issue with the visual arts. When we go to a concert all we have to do is close our eyes, or watch the conductor or orchestra, keep quiet and try not to make asses of ourselves by clapping at the end of a movement. We can let the music come to us, enter our ears and brains and allow it either to send us to sleep or to make a shape, a narrative, an emotional structure in our minds that delights, solaces, charms, frightens, seduces, enlivens or in any of a thousand other ways acts upon us and our thoughts and feelings. Although it seems today that if there is one thing going to a concert or play truly provokes in people it is a coughing fit. But that is a whole other kettle of wax. The point is that things are different when we look at works of art. When we go to a gallery there are other people moving and talking all around us and our time is, all things being equal, our own and not under the control of a conductor or director, we can choose to linger or pass by any individual work – choose: there is a frightening word.
There are so many unspoken dilemmas facing a gallery visitor. We arrive at an exhibition space that is displaying pieces by artists of whom we may or may not have heard. Often we are attending a show which exhibits works by names so illustrious and so, we are told, important, that they have already for hundreds of years been called Old Masters. Or they are Modern Masters, geniuses, icons, cultural heroes… they are great, or scandalous, or notorious or revered.They are intimidating.
Are we supposed to know facts about the artists and their works? Are we supposed to talk? Shall we be entirely silent and slowly stand and stare at works without comment and without revealing what we feel or shall we occasionally dare to say that we like this expression, or that shape, or those colours? Do we whisper to our companions, or do we imitate that awful show-off over there who is talking so knowledgeably and loudly about morbidezza, sfumato and golden sections? And isn’t it actually snobbish of us to disapprove of him, he is obviously enjoying himself and what is wrong with him imparting his enthusiasm and knowledge to his companion? Why should we assume he is showing off, doesn’t that assumption reveal nothing but our own self-conscious insecurity? Oh dear. It’s all so complicated. Aren’t we just striking a pose too, the pose of one who refuses to listen to any nonsense about art history, or pay any attention to the tradition or biographical background of the works before us. In fact we are going to ignore the so-called masterpiece in front of us and stylishly prefer the lesser known work next to it, just to show how original we are and how unswayed by reputations.
Even if we avoid all those contortions we still have to stand before art works that might have us entranced, or confused or perplexed, or shocked or bored or thrilled or hungry for more while at the same time knowing that there are others clamouring to see them as well, so we mustn’t hog the space directly in front, yet we are conscious too that we don’t know how far away to stand – should we step right back and risk other people getting in the way? On the other hand if we go too close are we pretentiously implying a connoisseur’s expertise in brushwork and technique? Oh dear, all I want to do is engage with the piece sincerely, with no pre-conceptions or prejudices but my own manners, fears and anxieties and my awareness of myself and of others, all obtrude. There’s always someone blocking my clear view of an artwork and that someone turns out to be myself.
All this self-consciousness. It sometimes seems that the only safe way to go round an exhibition is entirely on one’s own, otherwise we’re in terrible fear of looking like a show-off, or an ignoramus, or affected or blasé or pretentious or philistine or something equally shaming and dreadful. We yearn to be open, to learn, to be provoked, to engage honestly, simply and truthfully with a work, but to do so we must leave our self-aware, social, verbal and public selves behind. But how hard that is when we are in such a public sphere. The very fact of our being in a populous gathering automatically activates all those tribal status, power and perception regions of our brain that are death to plain, honest, naked encounters with art.
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.
And so it is a great pleasure for me to invite my fellow guests to rise and join me in a toast to the Royal Academy of Arts….
x Stephen Fry