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1990 Fuck the Media

In spite of the innovations it has accommodated over the centuries, the Summer Exhibition has retained characteristics, which preserve its sense of tradition. In 1990, for instance, the tradition of prefacing the Exhibition catalogue with a motto—introduced in 1769 and abandoned in 1963—was revived. The 1990 motto was the suitably arcane “Entia non multiplicanda praeter necessitate” (“Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity”, attributed to William of Occam).

That same year, the rituals of the Summer Exhibition were satirised in a perceptive newspaper cartoon by Martin Rowson, who revived something of the wit that James Gillray and his contemporaries brought to their lampoons of the Royal Academy during its early days (Fig. 1). Gillray, perhaps the greatest of British graphic satirists, famously targeted the Academy with prints such as his Titianus Redivivus (1797), which ridiculed the gullibility of Academicians—including the President, Benjamin West—for purchasing the Venetian Secret (or secret of Titian’s colouring), from its purported discoverer, the painting student Mary Ann Provis.1 Gillray was mentioned in the subheading to Rowson’s cartoon, but in fact, it seems to have more in common with numerous gently satirical prints documenting the early exhibitions of the Academy. More interested in the audience than the art, these often included likenesses of well-known figures such as the Prince of Wales and the more prominent Academicians among the visitors. Similarly, Rowson exuberantly depicts the various sectors of the Exhibition’s audience, including pensioners, art students, and the Academicians themselves, inspecting works of art exhibited in 1990.

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These include Michael Sandle’s bronze sculpture Fuck the Media (1988), in the centre of the cartoon and labelled anachronistically “Ye Daring Display of Iconoclasm”. The sculpture draws on the vocabulary of Futurism to depict a figure smashing an airborne television, reflecting the artist’s hatred of television and its capacity to distort and manipulate opinion (Fig. 2). The relationship between mass media and brainwashing had long been a theme of Sandle’s work, for instance in his abortive memorial to George Orwell, which was intended to be unveiled in Wigan in 1984 before being abandoned due to a shortfall in funding.2

Sandle’s work has a confrontational and polarising quality, which was summed up by Richard Dorment in his review of the artist’s 1988 Whitechapel Gallery exhibition: “walking through this exhibition was one of the most disagreeable experiences I have had for a long time. I suspect Michael Sandle will take that as very high praise indeed.”3

As Rowson’s cartoon suggests, the audacity of the work was perhaps blunted by its status as the “daring display of iconoclasm” for the year. Nonetheless, given that it was the first work that Sandle had shown at the Academy since he was elected as a full Academician in late 1989, Fuck the Media was still a notable statement of intent. This was reinforced by its position at the heart of Gallery III, the largest of the galleries given over to the Summer Exhibition. The work was not even exhibited under its original title—instead it was exhibited as A Mighty Blow for Freedom—an alternative title “deemed necessary for the sake of children and the genteel”.4 The sculpture is often referred to by both titles, although as John McEwen makes clear in his monograph on the artist, “A Mighty Blow for Freedom” was only added later as a necessary and compromise.

Sandle’s Diploma Work was a sculpture of Mickey Mouse made in 1990. Mickey Mouse had recurred in Sandle’s work since the early 1970s invariably resembling a harbinger of doom rather than an entertainment figure. In A Twentieth-Century Memorial (1971–1978), a skeletal Mickey operates a machine gun. The timing of Sandle’s election as an RA and his exhibiting of Fuck the Media is interesting because it coincided with, and flew in the face of, the rise of the so-called YBAs (Young British Artists), the label attached to a group of artists including Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, and Rachel Whiteread. In 1988, the three-part exhibition Freeze, held in Surrey Docks, London, announced many of these artists for the first time, and by 1990 dealers such as Karsten Schubert were giving these artists solo shows. Further warehouse shows such as Modern Medicine and Gambler (both held at Building One, SE16) built on the group identity of these artists.

In 1990, however, few could have anticipated how far the stock of these artists would have risen by 1998, when they well and truly arrived at the Academy with the landmark exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, which led to Sandle’s resignation.5 One point of contention was the fact that all of the work in the show was loaned by the advertising magnate Charles Saatchi (McEwen described a planned work by Sandle, which would include specific references to Saatchi).6 Sandle said:

I’m all for pluralism—there’s more than one way to skin a cat—but by showing Saatchi’s collection the Academy was colluding with a dealer, which is unacceptable. The Academy is a private institution and ought to be dedicated to excellence. It should have independent vision, not parrot orthodoxy.7

Furthermore, Sandle was disenchanted with the art in the Exhibition itself, saying in a 2007 interview that: “obviously there have always been good artists around the RA, but I did think we were dealing with a tsunami of rubbish, art as part of the fashion industry. Bling.”8

In retrospect, Fuck the Media can be seen as a work out of time, an impotent call for resistance to the forces of advertising and television. It is a strength of the Academy, nonetheless, that it was willing to exhibit the sculpture, and to accommodate so strong-minded an artist as Sandle. In 2004, Sandle was re-elected as an Academician, making him one of few artists to have resigned and returned to the Academy in this way.9 Of all recent Academicians, it is perhaps Sandle above all others who shows how the complex negotiations between artist and institution remain integral to the Academy.

  1. The literature on this famous hoax includes Angus Trumble and Mark Aronson, Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret, exhibition catalogue (New Haven, CT: Yale Center for British Art, 2008).↩︎

  2. John McEwen, The Sculpture of Michael Sandle (Much Hadham: Henry Moore Foundation, 2002), 65–66.↩︎

  3. Dorment quoted in McEwen, The Sculpture of Michael Sandle, 85.↩︎

  4. Sandle recalls that when the work was first shown at Sandle’s Whitechapel Gallery exhibition in 1988, Nicholas Serota advised him against the name. McEwen, The Sculpture of Michael Sandle, 75.↩︎

  5. Sandle had previously threatened to resign from the Academy in 1986: a letter from Roger de Grey to Sandle includes: “I am so much relieved to know that you are not really intending to leave us. You must know, of course, how much that would damage the Academy”; de Grey to Sandle, 22 September 1986, RAA/PRA/10/16.↩︎

  6. McEwen, The Sculpture of Michael Sandle, 58.↩︎

  7. Quoted in McEwen, The Sculpture of Michael Sandle, 63.↩︎

  8. Fiona Maddocks, “In the Studio with Michael Sandle RA”, Royal Academy website, 2 September 2007, first published in Royal Academy magazine (Autumn 2007),↩︎

  9. Other artists to have resigned and rejoined in this way include Stanley Spencer.↩︎

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