There was quite a throng at the BP Portrait Awards exhibition at the Natonal Portrait Gallery when I visited. One gained the impression that this might be the hottest show in town that balmy Sunday, apart, perhaps, from the beach volleyball at Horseguards Parade. You almost had to queue in the gallery space to see the individual pictures. Why? Well, the fact is that most of the work on display in the exhibition is very approachable to all of those people who loved Hockney's trees and hated Damien Hirst's shark – i.e. most of the population of these islands.
But what is there for the more jaded art-lover like me? I am genuinely shocked nowadays if an artist doesn't at least try to shock me (although, ironically and perversely, I am not actually shocked even if he or she does make the effort). A few months ago, I walked around the Damien Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern, genuinely impressed by the extent to which he was taking the mickey out of the public, his buyers, the art establishment, and, last and by all means least, me. But then I'm afraid I frequently go to contemporary art galleries to be affronted, even insulted, and I am disappointed and confused when it doesn't happen; Damien did not let me down.
So what enjoyment could somebody like me derive from an exhibition of portraits? They're a bit tame, a bit polite, perhaps - predictable even. Well, not exactly. When you think about it, portraiture can be very cool indeed when done well. It has to be said that analysing it in terms of contemporary aesthetics may be rather difficult to do, as art as it is taught in higher education and seen in cutting edge galleries has - not to put too fine a point on it - moved on some considerable time ago. But another discipline literally comes into the picture and gives huge opportunities for debate and discussion when we look at portraits; namely, Cultural Studies. By definition, a portrait is the depiction of a person or persons. The portraitist tries to capture the essence of the individuals portrayed, their feelings, their identity, their life situations. And as Cultural Studies informs us, identity is not just about gender, class, ethnicity, age and similar concepts but about power relations. A portrait may appear extremely simple conceptually, but, intentionally or otherwise, it always makes a statement - not always clearly or unambiguously, admittedly - about the subject's place in the world and the artist's.
The nature of the prize-winning entries in this competition makes it clear how important this kind of analysis appears to be to the judges of this genre of art, and, perhaps, to the viewing public, even if its significance is almost entirely unconscious. Unfortunately, I think this approach can sometimes lead to work being chosen less for its artistic merit than for its potential for wider cultural and social appeal to the public and I wonder if this is really the way to go. Call me old-fashioned and prejudiced, but I prefer a less politically correct nude than the artist who won the first prize decided to produce. The fat birds in Rubens were there because that was the taste in the contemporary appreciation of art by its then very limited audience, not because somebody wanted to make you feel guilty for not feeling the same grubby urges about them as you might about somebody rather more lithe and, frankly, gorgeous. The beauty of the young and nubile makes its own point (evolutionary biology has taken care of that particular issue, I'm afraid) and, however lazy you might think me for this, I prefer not to be asked to assume the not inconsiderable additional burdens of political correctness and cultural sensitivity just to look at a not especially impressive piece of artwork. Yes, I do understand what the artist is trying to do, just as I understand what a beggar is trying to do and why when I am accosted by one on a London street, but in both cases, I really do not want to know. I feel much the same way about the third prize winner; two arms full of tattoos do not make me think that the person sporting them is more interesting or individualistic than those who are not similarly adorned, if that is the right word. Quite the opposite, in fact, but with a disconcertingly large scalar effect to go with the vector. Artists can be so crass sometimes.
I do not envy the judges of these awards the task of choosing between works so disparate in style and subject matter. But neither do I ever seem to agree with them about which paintings are the best or most interesting. I am pleased that photorealism has taken a back seat this year; those few paintings in this style that were represented in this exhibition were easily among the weakest, in my opinion. I loved Paul Moyse's portrait of Derren Brown in his sitting room and Carl Randall's almost Hopperesque greyscale depiction of a scene in a noodle bar. Why? Because they allow the viewer some discretion in judgement and feeling. For me, it's as simple as that. If I were the sole judge, not one of the prizewinners would have got into the exhibition. But hey, what do I know? I like contemporary art, don't I?