ONCE, visiting an art show was something to do on a wet weekend. These days it’s all about attitude and identity; none of that slumming about enjoying pictures the way our grandparents did, yet intellectually and aesthetically many arts shows leave one remarkably unsatisfied.

Modern Art Oxford has one titled ‘Claudette Johnson: I Came to Dance.’ She and her Afro-Caribbean friends may have ‘come to dance’, but seem to have lapsed into brooding anger.

Johnson’s work is dynamic and impressive, on paper 3ft x 4ft covered in vibrant pastel and gouache marks, left unfixed so making the work very fragile. I’d liked to have known more about her process but none of the attendants knew, although their hand-out says they’ll answer any questions.

You could rejoice to see a woman painter aged sixty (albeit gloomy), but the notices beside her work tell a story of tedious discontent. She set out her agenda – there has to be one:

‘I’m not interested in portraiture or its tradition. I’m interested in giving space to Blackwoman [sic] presence. A presence which has been distorted, hidden and denied. I’m interested in our humanity, our feelings and our politics.’

When, where, by whom? She doesn’t say but one can be pretty sure she’s not talking about people in her own community. The finger, like the portrait’s gaze, is directed at the middle-class white gallery-goers.

Sometimes in her ire she is unintelligible. Beside Figure in Raw Umber, which has been purchased by the Tate, she writes: ‘I do believe that the fiction of “blackness” that is the legacy of colonialism can be interrupted by an encounter with the stories that we have to tell about ourselves.’

What does that mean? Of course, in places where there are no white people, blackness is the reality, there is no ‘other’, but black people were fascinated when they first saw white skin, and she is now part of a minority which looks outwards at others, and is in turn looked at. Why should that normal human interaction be denigrated as ‘a legacy of colonialism’?

She obviously sees ‘Blackwoman’ as a homogeneous group; ‘black’, by the way, has now been replaced with ‘of colour’ by the PC brigade. Do keep up!

Her thirty works on paper are fuelled by fury at the looting of other cultures in the name of Empire, ‘cultural appropriation’ as it’s now called, applied to anything from shrunken heads in the Pitt Rivers Museum to white girls braiding their hair. It also applies in art to Modernists such as Matisse, Braque and Picasso using influences from Africa. An earlier generation were fascinated by Japan, but that is not so often mentioned. Yet the finest painting in her show, Standing Figure with African Masks, also bought by the Tate, is a grand hommage to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d ’Avignon.

When she saw it as an art student she relished ‘the fearlessness of the women’. The woman in her painting has to ‘negotiate a relationship with the African masked figures’.

That’s more like it: a sensitive interpretation of the challenge faced by black people in the West to come to terms with Africa as well as the despised colonial past.

We mainly see glowering women but there some excellent small drawings of black men, and Seven Bullets shows a young black man who appears to have been shot, glaring out at the viewer accusingly. She has hit the zeitgeist: race and sexuality as mere ‘social constructs’, the black experience one of ‘pain, suffering and endurance’ and now, it seems, endless humourless claptrap.

Thence to London, to the great annual BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), controversial before you even get in the door.

Five Turner Prize winners and the radical protest group Extinction Rebellion want the BP sponsorship dropped. One of the judges, Gary Hume, wrote to the NPG director: ‘As the impacts of climate change become increasingly apparent, the gallery will look increasingly out of step by hosting an oil-branded art prize.’

In fact there is very little oil on show in the exhibition. The show boasts that it is ‘the most prestigious portrait painting competition in the world’. First prize was won by Charlie Schaffer for his portrait of a large black girl in a fake fur coat. A splendid piece but there were not many paintings to choose from. Of the forty-five exhibits only a handful were actually painted.

Vanessa Garwood stands out, for a large oil of a beautiful naked black youth (there seems to be a certain theme this year) but most works are photographs. This isn’t about artists like Gerhart Richter struggling to express truth through distorting old family photos, it’s about people who cannot paint using a camera to make an image, projecting it large, then painting over it in a plastic-based medium. The result is garish hyper-realism.

Down the road at the Mall Gallery, the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA) takes us back to the 50s, the 1850s.

This is the acme of conventional painting and nothing is too twee or sentimental; girl in a café looking worried, entitled ‘The Result’. We shall never know what it’s about but our Victorian minds can be very moved at her plight. A painting of a cute little dog is called ‘Fetch!’ A sombre sculpted head, ‘Migrant’.

No politics here, just kindly middle-class sentiment. No heart-string goes unplucked. My grandparents, who knew what they liked, would have been satisfied.

As usual a few works stand out from people with honed technical skill and a painterly imagination. The problem is that not many can draw, paint, write, play or sing really well. In previous times almost everyone learned to do it but only a few saw themselves as talented enough to live the dream of being a professional artist. Now, thanks to increased individualism, the craving for fame, and the educational idea that anyone can do anything without much effort, there are more artists than you can shake a mahl stick at. Nearly 3,000 entered the BP Award, regardless of whether they’d ever held a paintbrush. If you’ve got a niche identity or a popular grievance to air, whatever your skill, you’re in the art market with more than a chance.

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.