‘What a Tory exhibition this is’ – the RA’s climate crisis Summer Exhibition

Earth’s plight is desperate but that doesn’t mean artists necessarily have anything to say about it. Some do, and have been making powerful environmental art for years. Richard Long has a piece here, the latest in a lifetime of walking through landscapes making ephemeral markers of sticks and stones, inviting you to commune like him with the fields and hills. But imposing “climate” as a theme turns out to be a goad to all that is worst in the Royal Academy. This is a catastrophic exhibition but not in the way it intends.

The insincerity hits you like a stench of decaying rubbish. I’m not saying veteran Royal Academician Allen Jones doesn’t care about the climate but his painting sure looks like a piss-take. A man and woman run towards a flaming sky, painted in his deliberately lurid pop style. Her breasts are green. Below this persiflage hangs Atomic Landscape # Prepfordeath by Zachary Walsh. It’s a big rolling green British landscape with a mushroom cloud on the horizon.

I’m barely finished with the first room and already this show has degenerated into aimless mulch. Even if you believe that the artists are truly driven to make hay with the apocalypse, the Royal Academy makes discomfort very comfortable. There are lots of banal landscapes every year – the anodyne nature painting or photograph is a Summer Exhibition staple. This year there are more than ever, all claiming a spurious political purpose. Here’s a glowing photograph of mountains by Alan McQuillan in which an orange plume of smoke drifts across the blue sky. It’s a forest fire. It is too pretty to be moving.

What a Tory exhibition this is, in the Boris and Carrie Johnson manner of ostentatiously affecting green concerns. Who is going to be genuinely challenged by this huge display of artistic gentility? James Burnett-Stuart shows a ceramic still life of flowers wilting in a vase. And for £350 you can put it on your mantelpiece to impress people with your anger about the planet. Equally bathetic is Stephen Clover’s Anteclime, a porcelain model of a disposable cup thrown away.

It is as if the Royal Academy has invented a new kind of art, Climate Kitsch. We’ve had powerful comments on the environment by the likes of Beuys, Whiteread and Eliasson. Now let’s unleash the silly. Grace O’Connor’s painting A Time of Fulfilment is a soppy woodland scene populated by peaceful deer. It seems to be inspired by Bambi.

“Don’t let Bambi die!” would actually have been a better slogan than some of those in the two rooms of prints curated by Grayson Perry. “You don’t have to look like a twat to be an artist,” Lene Bladbjerg tells us. (But it helps?) Perry at least gives some energy to his rooms, painting the walls yellow and crowding everything together to suggest bonkers fun. But what is his attitude to these artworks? You sense he thinks a lot of them are eccentric crap. This lofty irony is somewhat undermined by his own Covid Bell, a real bronze bell – you can ring it – adorned with pseudo-medieval figures. Death stalks the land. The bell tolls. But Grayson’s not really saying that, he’s laughing at us for thinking that. Or something. This artist is so lost in his ironies he long lost sight of anything urgent he needed to say. As a sculpture this rings hollow.

Of course, it’s not about climate. Nor is a stonking nude by Tracey Emin that rages in a space of its own, kept apart like the Komodo dragon at the zoo. Red and black burst from it gorily. Clearly this dangerous work of art needs to be isolated, otherwise it might rampage among the herbivores in the other rooms and tear them to pieces. Don’t hurt your head trying to work out what her naked cry of a canvas has got to do with climate change. Just enjoy its blast of raw life and artistic drive.

Does that mean Emin doesn’t care about Earth’s plight as much as all the artists, famous and unknown, whose feeble pictures of trees and statues covered in flowers fill the rest of the show? No. She makes the art she has to make.

Elsewhere what the Summer Exhibition is really about is all the ways in which art can be bad. It can have a too-obvious message that makes it absurd, or a boring vagueness that makes it futile, or be derivative, or ugly, or too pretty. All these defects and more are on view.

No one in their right mind doesn’t worry about the climate, so this is a safe theme, one we almost all agree on. That makes it artistically dull, which suits the Royal Academy perfectly. It has resulted in a soporific show that makes you wonder what the point of art is. Maybe it is all just a waste of paper and paint and pottery and bronze.




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