Open to ideas

“When I was a young artist, I wouldn’t have considered it. In the early 1980s I was invited to submit work and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t respond. It simply didn’t fit my ideas of where the art world lay.”

This is Christopher Le Brun, painter and president of the Royal Academy, on the annual Summer Exhibition. The 244th show opens on Monday; if Le Brun, 60, were a young artist today, would he feel differently?

The Summer Exhibition is the world’s largest open-submission show, hung in the world’s most beautiful, historically resonant galleries. It attracts loyal audiences, including many people who only buy at Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy, because, says Le Brun, “they won’t go to commercial galleries, where they feel under pressure”. Prices this year range from £25 to £600,000, with 90 per cent of works under £10,000, many below £1,000. What’s not to like?

I love the Summer Exhibition above all for its eclecticism – so many works jumbled together irrespective of artist, media or subject. Michael Landy’s comic painted bronze “Self-portrait as Rubbish Bin” faces some small, surprising charcoal nudes by Anthony Caro, sculptor of massive steel forms. Edmund de Waal’s luminous porcelain pots on an aluminium shelf, “Lament”, hover over Cornelia Parker’s images of Brontë sisters’ ephemera – blotting paper, needle – transformed by close-up lens into melancholy abstract photographs. In the grand Lecture Room, annual stalwarts – Ken Howard with a contre-jour studio picture “Dora at Oriel”, Olwyn Bowey’s meticulous plant still-lifes painted in her greenhouse, garish/grotesque fantasies by John Bellany – are piled high alongside less conventional interpretations of what a painting can be, such as Lisa Milroy’s oil on fabric dresses “Wearable Paintings”.

The many-tiered, closely packed hang replays styles from the Summer Exhibition’s 18th-19th-century heyday. When I first visited in the 1970s, it seemed old-fashioned; among today’s ubiquitous white cube displays and curator-led, thematic shows, the abundance and randomness look radical.

What museum curator now would dare present, say, as artist Alison Wilding has in the sculpture galleries, some hundred works assembled as if they had just fallen off a lorry into a storeroom? Yet meander through these spaces, among pieces as rigorous as Bill Woodrow’s bronze forms enclosed by laminated MDF screens, “Illuminator A and B”, and as vernacular as Anna Barlow’s ceramic ice cream “Miss Sugar Cone Unsure”, and you encounter a seriously considered installation that, however, leaves room for viewer and works to breathe.

The range is assured by an open-minded selection policy where enthusiasm trumps negativity – as 12,000 submissions are rushed past seven Royal Academy selectors, each needs just one vote to progress to the galleries, where, if an artist-curator can find it a place, it will be hung. The process has archaic trappings: Le Brun waves a two-sided wand, with X for “no” or “D” for “doubtful” – the best result at the first stage – over each submission. But, says selector Humphrey Ocean, “We don’t miss things, we’re really alert.”

David Mach’s ‘Layed Back’

I’m sure this is true, yet something is missing. Last week, along with Ocean, a painter, and 20th-century art historian Dawn Ades, I judged the Wollaston Award for “the most distinguished work” in the exhibition. Launched in 1996, this is, at £25,000, the equal of the Turner Prize, though with nothing like its high profile. But Wollaston winners – David Hockney, Jeff Koons, Sol LeWitt, Yinka Shonibare, Gavin Turk, Marc Quinn – reflect current international art-making more vibrantly and comprehensively than the Turner’s recent record of also-rans (Susan Philipsz, Mark Leckey, Tomma Abts ... ).

What the Turner has, though, and the Summer Exhibition lacks, is youth. I and my fellow judges spent a day at Burlington House, each independently drawing up lists of candidates, then arguing out a longlist of nine, later compressed to a shortlist of four. No artist we considered was under the age of 40. Only two on our longlist – painter Ian Davenport, film-maker Jayne Parker – were under 60.

A dress from Lisa Milroy’s ‘Wearable Paintings’

Our shortlist – Tim Head’s inkjet print of brilliant-hued geometric lines “Libra”; Anselm Kiefer’s mixed-media painting “Samson”, with a gun dangling over a cracked Gaza landscape; David Nash’s velvet-black charred oak sculpture “Hump with a Hole”, so texturally seductive that we all wanted to touch if not climb inside it; Sean Scully’s delicately modulated wall-of-light-through-darkness abstraction “Doric Grey” – reflects the high quality, intensity of visual sensation, plurality of media and international scope of the 2012 Summer Exhibition. It also reflects the age profile: all the artists were born in 1945 or 1946.

As a critic particularly interested in painting, I follow the careers of scores of young professional artists under 40. Not one submitted work to the Summer Exhibition. And in decades of seeing the show, I have never discovered a new artist, never encountered an emerging name for whom Burlington House was the springboard to later success. The Royal Academy has tried to engage with the contemporary: Landy, Tracey Emin and Tacita Dean are among Academicians elected since 2007 – but all are now nearly 50. The Summer Exhibition is where the RA must engage the next generation; its failure to do so keeps it a step behind the times.

Le Brun agrees a key problem is “how to encourage young professional artists. They’re very welcome but we’re not on their circuit.”

A view of the Royal Academy’s central hall with a gold sculpture by Leonard McComb

Younger artists are more likely to submit work to London’s other open-submission show, the Whitechapel Gallery’s triennial London Open, where the emphasis tends to be on the conceptual. The show began in 1932 with an invitation to artists “living or working east of the famous Aldgate Pump”. Unlike the Summer Exhibition, it has launched many careers: Gormley, Kapoor and Whiteread. It is also more specifically selected, focusing on political subjects: this year Nicholas Cobb’s photographs of plastic models rioting at Bluewater shopping centre, Pio Abad’s works featuring Saddam Hussein’s gold taps printed on imitation Versace scarves and Leigh Clarke’s “Heads of State” masks.

Such work reflects current gallery taste: it is in Aldgate, not Piccadilly, that cutting-edge dealers will look to recruit. In an epoch when it is an unprecedentedly powerful art market, rather than museum endorsement, that shapes artists’ careers, the Summer Exhibition is, bizarrely, a bastion of the unofficial.

“There’s a curious irony about the controlling nature of the art market that leads to a lack of variety in the system. Commercial pressure drives towards a sort of academicism,” says Le Brun. “The Royal Academy stands for freedom of the individual imagination.” This is what makes it a vital, artist-led voice against the global homogenisation imposed by market forces, with the potential – if only it can shift its stodgy image among younger practitioners – to become a truly representative contemporary show.

Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, June 4-August 12 The Wollaston Award winner will be announced on the BBC Culture Show Special, June 15

‘London Open’, Whitechapel Gallery, London, July 4-September 14

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