Sir Tom Stoppard was in fighting form at the Royal Academy dinner last week.
His speech has largely been misreported as a crude attack on anything that might be described as contemporary. It was actually subtle and witty, raising matters that are at the heart of the debate over the way in which art is validated or esteemed in present culture - and where better to do this than the RA, the only truly independent body of artists and architects, devoid of government funding and state influence and comprising no more and no less than its own academicians. Stoppard's argument was that there is no continuum in Modern Art and that the historical move, from the artist making objects to the artist having ideas and getting other people to make them flesh, meant it was a 'hop, skip and a jump to Tracey's knickers' - a remark that has caused trouble. His other aphorisms ('We are what we install' and 'Criticism is the escape of a sorely felt grievance') went largely unnoticed. Reports that the applause was lukewarm were well wide of the mark. In fact, his conclusion, in which he read an extract from his latest play, was a brilliant summation of the arguments and ideas he had presented. His suggestion that Duchamp's urinal was difficult to match, simply because once the unexpected had become predictable, it became difficult to assess it, sounded only too true.
Many of the architects in the audience must have felt some sympathy for his arguments. After all, don't architects have ideas and then expect other people to make them real?