In a speech for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, which I published as a blog a month or so back, I talked about how deeply embarrassing and unsettling the whole business of confronting an artwork can be. How do we respond? What are we meant to know? Suppose there are such things as taste and judgment or necessary knowledge that other people have but I (or so I tell myself) don’t? Who is more pretentious, the one who praises the strange, the modern and the difficult or the one who loudly condemns them to show that he, for one, isn’t “fooled”? How can we rid ourselves of the kinds of self-consciousness that make us ask such silly questions in the first place?
We have all experienced embarrassment, self-consciousness and anxiety when looking at a piece of art. The word “art” is so overloaded anyway, burdened as it is with the highest metaphysical, aesthetic, cultural and social meanings over and above the general meaning of “paintings and sculptures and whatnot”. Few words, when given a capital letter, become so tendentious and vexing as Art.
I don’t want to overstate the “problem” of gallery visiting. We should forget all that and think of the pleasure that is to be had, the pleasure in feeding the eyes and brain with the colour and mass and weight, the emotional drama, wit and narrative, the excitement and the sheer beauty that only artists can offer. The first duty to art that we have is to trust our own responses. We should remember the suggestion Alan Bennett had that over the doorway of a great gallery should be written the words, “You don’t have to like everything…”
Two years ago I was touched and flattered to be asked to join the board of trustees of the Royal Academy, which has long been one of my very favourite places on earth to visit. Do you know it? The Academy was founded in 1768 and moved into Burlington House, its current Palladian home, about a hundred years after that. You enter a gateway on the north side of Piccadilly and a courtyard opens up, focussing on a central statue of the Academy’s founding president Joshua Reynolds, palette and brush in hand, although it is likely these days that the area will be dominated by whichever current exterior contemporary installation might be surrounding the old boy. You pass up some steps and into perhaps the most elegant and impressive viewing galleries and exhibition spaces in London.
What do I love about the RA? Well, the name is a clue. It is an academy. It is owned and run and governed, not by us trustees, but by the painters, sculptors and architects who make up its membership, from Gary Hume to Elizabeth Blackadder, from David Hockney to Tracy Emin, from Anish Kapoor to Norman Foster. But it is a true academy too: the RA Schools is the oldest art school in the country. Turner, Constable and Blake were taught there.
By virtue of its nature the Academy will always and by definition engage with, display and promote the works of living artists, but because it has the best rooms in the world and an unrivalled history of putting together exhibitions it will always be a place to come and see some of the most exquisite and extraordinary art objects the world can offer – in recent years previously unseen treasures from China, Turkey, Russia, the Middle East and, at the time of writing, Hungary. As it happens the Academy also owns and displays the only Michelangelo sculpture in Britain, alone worth the hundred yard walk from Piccadilly tube station… It’s called the Taddei Tondo, and is a kind of carved circular tablet of marble depicting the Madonna, the baby Jesus and the infant John the Baptist. It will make your heart skip a beat to think that someone can make such a thing armed with nothing more than a chisel…