There's nothing we British like more than a good row among artists. There was the so-called Art Quake of 1910, when The Times denounced the first exhibition of Post-Impressionism as "degenerate" and "the rejection of all that civilization has done". Then in 1935 Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, claimed Ben Nicholson's abstract reliefs had contracted "spiritual beri-beri" due to their "fatal defect of purity". It has always been the establishment versus the new.
But last week was different. Not only was the art establishment under attack for its keen espousal of avant-garde conceptual art, but the attacker- in-chief was a traditional figurative artist, complaining of the establishment's partiality. Stuart Pearson Wright, who won the pounds 25,000 first prize at the National Portrait Gallery's BP Portrait Awards for The Six Presidents of the Royal Academy, a group portrait which features suited academics contemplating their mortality, symbolised by a dead chicken, used the occasion to proclaim that Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, should be sacked.
His misdemeanour? According to 25-year-old Pearson Wright, he is chief among the villainous members of the arts establishment who ignore young figurative artists and force them to choose between abandoning painting or surviving by "taking day jobs in Burger King".
"If such huge sums of public money are involved, this seems wrong and the public should have more of a say," said Pearson Wright. "I am going to do all I can to change this, and sacking Serota would be a step in the right direction."
Pearson Wright's view echoes those of the Stuckists, a group of painters who post regular manifestos complaining about the art establishment on the internet, and whose leader, Charles Thomson, stood unsuccessfully against the former Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, at the general election.
But as the Stuckists' work is widely considered banal and naive, and their complaints hysterical, they tend to be dismissed as the lunatic fringe. What really made a difference last week was not only Pearson Wright's new-found credibility, but that his attack came shortly after that of the playwright Tom Stoppard. He too questioned the new orthodoxy in his recent speech at the Royal Academy dinner. Then on Wednesday, the spotlight fell again on Nicholas Serota, when the director of Tate Modern, Lars Nittve, resigned, allegedly due to clashes with Serota about the vision for the galleries.
Serota's position at the Tate gives him unsurpassed influence in the contemporary art world. …