REVIEW: RA Summer Exhibition

Pavan Chaggar, the director of Art Aesthetics, joined me for an impromptu game of ‘The Price Is Right’ at the RA Summer Exhibition, 2018. ‘£12,000,’ whispered Pavan as we approached Ben Johnson’s Dome of the Rock, Façade (2017). I’d already flicked through the ‘List of Works’ and found the price tag. ‘Good guess, but you’re a zero off... Actually, £12,000 wouldn’t even get you close to the ‘deposit payable today’ of £36,000.’ We craned our necks to look up at the artwork that was hung as befits its price: damnably high.

Ben Johnson's  Dome of the Rock, Façade  (2017)

Ben Johnson's Dome of the Rock, Façade (2017)


But it was far from the most expensive work we’d seen. Banksy’s Vote to Love (2018) was impudently priced at that infamous bus-side claim of £350,000,000 made by Vote Leave during the Brexit Referendum. Perhaps the EU could purchase it for Brussels with the proceeds of the £39bn ‘divorce bill’ we’ll have to pay before long. One wonders whether Phillip Hammond ought to eye up the Queen’s £10bn art collection having already sold off the public stake in Royal Bank of Scotland at a loss.  

It appears, then, that Pavan and the Chancellor of the Exchequer share the same propensity for misevaluation. I’d been reluctant to share my own estimate of £30,000 regarding the Johnson. Our other reviewer, Daniel, who, rather unfairly, saw Johnson’s works at the Mall Galleries last year, tutted despairingly. It goes to show that a degree in the History of Art isn’t worth tuppence when it comes to playing ‘The Price is Right’ in the topsy-turvy world of the art market. And yet, this is all part of the fun of the RA Summer Exhibition.

With exhibitors ranging from RA academicians to complete unknowns, the summer show has always held the potential for social gaffes. Hung in the iconic salon-style, the works are displayed with a parity rare in galleries. The RA refuses to display any captions that would highlight the works of famous artists; unmoored from their makers, authors, and artists—not to mention, given over to the despotic curation of Grayson Perry—the artworks challenge the viewer as so much flotsam adrift upon the Barthian sea.

‘Perry,’ says Jonathan Jones, ‘has filled the summer show with crap.’[i] You’re never quite sure, then, whether the artwork you’re looking at is supposed to be ironic. Take the ‘crap’ seriously, and suddenly the joke is on you. I searched the ‘List of Works’ in vain for any indication that my taste aligned with that of the art world.

I was baffled, however, by the seemingly arbitrary figures; although, the valuations don’t necessarily reflect any consensus as much as what one person decided to pay—your works are often just as valuable as the last bidder.

Cornelia Parker's  Twice Removed  (2018) was Pavan's favourite artwork.

Cornelia Parker's Twice Removed (2018) was Pavan's favourite artwork.


The Summer Exhibition doesn’t shy away from the ‘dirty’ topic of money. One often feels improper discussing the insalubrious question of value, especially in the chapel-like spaces of contemporary galleries where the artwork’s interpretation is shrouded in art-speak mysticism. Art’s quasi-spiritual significance is propagated—quite skilfully, I might add—by galleries and artists alike. Rothko famously said that ‘[t]he people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.’[ii] Students spill more ink debating Wassily Kandinksy’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) than the artist ever did on one of his canvases. We’re primed, then, to unhesitatingly accept art as some incomprehensible and amorphous thing. I’ve many friends who work on the assumption that if they don’t ‘get’ an artwork, it must be so good that it’s sublimely beyond their understanding—and, all too often, well beyond their overdraft too.

Although private galleries put on exhibitions in order to sell artworks, the question of price is usually reserved for discreet discussions behind closed doors. For those who’re just setting out on collecting, or simply curious, this lack of transparency can be infuriating.

It’s refreshing, then, that the summer show has always been unashamedly about selling artwork. Here, the accessibility of the prices is a genuine tonic that, at its heart, it’s a market. As Perry says, ‘you cannot over intellectualise it.’

Michael Landy's  Everything must Go  (2018)

Michael Landy's Everything must Go (2018)


Nothing better encapsulates the Perry’s playful curation than the use of Michael Landy’s Closing Down Sale as the cover for the price list. It unashamedly pokes fun at the show, stripping away the artifice of the gallery. Each summer the RA turns into a market, as Landy declares bold black letters, ‘Everything must go!’

[i] Jonathan Jones, ‘Summer Exhibition/The Great Spectacle review – a Grayson revolution’, The Guardian,  <> [accessed 2 Aug., 2018].

[ii] Selden Rodman, ‘Notes from a conversation with Selden Rodman, 1956’, in Miguel López-Remiro (ed.) Mark Rothko, Writings on Art, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p.120-121.

ReviewsEllen Charlesworth