Time to Close the Asylum

I make no secret of my feelings with respect to the work of British contemporary artist Tracey Emin, as regular readers of these pages know.  So it was with great horror, though in the end with no real surprise, that I read of her appointment as Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.  Given the rejection of the academic tradition by so many, perhaps it is time to ask a question that no one seems to have looked at with any real scrutiny: if academic training is so oenerous to contemporary artists, then why do institutions go through the mockery of claiming to provide it?

To speak of Ms. Emin, which regrettably I must having chosen to comment on this news, she is perhaps more famous for creating piles of trash, entirely reflective of her rather unwashed persona, than in demonstrating any real talent as an artist. However she does pick up a pencil from time to time, and creates the sort of work that a disaffected 15-year-old with a penchant for piercings and huffing glue might be proud to bring home from art class and tape to the door of the refrigerator or the bedroom wall.  If you doubt my assertion, do an image search for “Tracey Emin drawing” and you will see what I mean.  The majority of what you will see is entirely lacking in anything of note, apart from its being rather crude and juvenile.

Jumping to Ms. Emin’s defense subsequent to this announcement has been no less a figure than Sir Nicholas Serrota, Director of the Tate Galleries and leader of the black turtleneck and Prada shoes brigade, whose taste and perception leave something to be desired in and of themselves.  Not so long ago, Sir Nicholas opined that Raphael’s beautiful little panel of 1506-1507, the “Madonna of the Pinks”, which was being put up for auction by its owner, ought to leave the country rather than being acquired with public funds for the National Gallery in London. Sir Nicholas’ reasoning, if one can call it that, was that there was not enough foreign art in British public collections – the logic, of course, having escaped Sir Nicholas that Raphael was an Italian, and not a British painter. Fortunately he was ignored, as he always should be by anyone with a modicum of sense.

Before this scrivener is accused – again – of not liking anything contemporary, allow me to point out that my dislike of much of contemporary art has nothing to do with whether or not something is directly representational, or even pleasant to look at.  What I do dislike is the idea, foisted upon us by the contemporary art establishment, that I am stupid, and that the Emperor is not, in fact, starkers. If there is no material, and no sewing, then whatever “it” is may be many things, but not a piece of clothing.

Simply because one creates a work of art, said object is, so to speak, not necessarily a work of art.  Almost anything can be considered art, and I am certainly prepared to be open-minded and give a broad definition to that term.  Yet as always, in the end we have to return to the fundamental question of whether that work of art is any good, or in the case of prominent collections and institutions, good enough to be held up as an example of the creative achievements of human beings.

Is Britain really so bereft of actual artistic talent that it must raise to a new level of prominence someone who cannot draw, to teach a drawing class? No reasonable person could think that Tracey Emin is so skilled in draughtsmanship as to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the great talents of art history, some of whom preceded her at the Royal Academy, such as Reynolds, Turner and Constable – let alone Raphael who, while of course not a member of the Royal Academy, was capable of producing drawings (as shown below) as beautiful as his paintings, so despised by Sir Nicholas.  I would further note that, as it happens, I do not particularly care for Turner or Constable, as a matter of personal taste, but I recognize that they understood the value of study and practice, rather than creating work such as Emin’s which Britain has, to the rest of our embarassment, decided to use to promote the Olympic Games next year.

The Royal Academy of Arts clearly no longer serves any discernible purpose other than to scandalize tourists who visit its deplorable shows, or to promote the lunatics who are running what has now become an assylum for the (at best) mediocre.  Taking Sir Nicholas’ line of thinking, there seems to be no reason why it should be kept open at all.  For why does such a gifted artist like Ms. Emin need a bricks-and-mortar space in which to share her “talent”? With modern technology there is no reason to keep the space: auction off the dusty old contents and knock it down to put in a public park, or turn it into public housing, which Central London is so desperate for.  For truly, the denizens of the place have lost both their senses and their organization’s raison d’être.

Drawing of Two Apostles, Study for “The Transfiguration” by Raphael (c. 1520)
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

2 thoughts on “Time to Close the Asylum

  1. You are quite right – the Emperor is starkers, and has been for some time. However, I do take heart in the fact that our great tradition of Western Art is not quite dead. Talents as diverse of Jacob Collins and Ephraim Rubenstein are celebrated and collectible; and ateliers dedicated to rediscovering and sharing the Beaux Arts ideal are springing up all over the United States. Art may be down and out, but it’s not quite dead, yet. I also consol myself with the fact that greatness is often unappreciated in its own age – remember that many initially thought Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel was crude and vulgar. So art under-appreciated today my gain acclaim later on, while Emin is forgotten….


  2. A good blog today, echoing the comments I would make about SNAG which occupies (intensional) a similar roll in my field. I wonder if enough blogs and their comments, derisive of the modern art education, were printed out on Japanese paper, crumpled, and piled high, would get a good grade in a contemporary art class as art?


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