It has been described as "the largest festival of bad art in Europe" and as "anachronistic; a toe-curling embarrassment", but that does nothing to deter the 150,000 art enthusiasts who stumble and trip over the cobbles of the Burlington House courtyard to visit the Summer Exhibition in London's Royal Academy of Arts.
It's one of the rites of the British summer season, which includes the Chelsea Flower Show, the Henley Regatta, Test match cricket and opera at Glyndebourne. Its opening party on Wednesday was a scene of unashamed networking by wheelers and dealers and gossip among the artists. So corporate is the event that the Academy's largest gallery cannot be used to display the big sculptures its space warrants because there are so many dinners held there.
Nonetheless, it is, somehow, the people's art show. It is full of reputable and accessible work by Royal Academicians, who are elected by an RA committee, and occasionally disreputable work by the likes of Tracey Emin. Last year the gallery she curated had a sign at the door warning visitors of the shocks within and she didn't disappoint. For most people it is the work of the gifted amateurs that draws in the crowds. This year, of the 1,247 works that have been selected from more than 10,000 entries by some 5,000 artists, there were 200 first-time exhibitors chosen from the open submissions.
Eileen Cooper, who is one of this year's co-ordinators, sums up the simple pleasure of the exhibition, which opens to the public today: "As an artist you can have the absolute delight of having your work displayed at the Royal Academy. The reality now is that it is a desirable area for any practising artist to be seen. It is seen as a good alternative to the influence of the Saatchi Gallery and Nicholas Serota of the Tates, which dominate so much of the work shown in British galleries. They are now as establishment as we are - probably more establishment. This is run by artists, after all."
Cooper, who was elected a Royal Academician in 2001 for her work as a printmaker, contends that press perception has changed. "They couldn't say now that even the Weston Room, which is full of small prints and paintings at very affordable prices, are just there for moneymaking reasons. They have content, they have subject matter; there are beautiful, quirky works hanging there." The co-ordinating committee, which consists of Cooper, the sculptor Ann Christopher and the architect Will Alsop, started work on the show in October.
"Ann came up with the idea that the theme could be Making Space. It's about making a feeling of space and of being inclusive. Artists are obsessed by space and the use of it and whether it is formal or representative it can be interpreted in many ways. It's a big part of what we artists talk about. In my work I hope there is some kind of psychological space." The trio also decided to add and mix elements such as sculpture, photography and, for the first time, film to the rooms that were traditionally reserved for painting only.
"Ann also had the idea that sculpture could be seen in a slightly different way with some hanging from the walls. There are some beautiful wall features by such artists as Anthony Gormley, Allen Jones and Frank Stella. People might say: 'Oh, where's the room with sculpture?' but we don't have any as such, we have mixed and matched. As a co-ordinator, I had my own space to curate and I have four or five sculptures in my print room.
"We tried to find things that are appropriate for each other. For example, there is a big Anthony Caro in the room that John Hoyland curated and that fits in with his idea of modernism and the way John sees what art should be." His room is one of some bravura with works by the young artist Hannah Birkett, who graduated a few years ago from the RA School, Anthony Francis, another recent graduate and Barbara Rae, a modernist Scottish painter.
Then, there is the choosing of the amateurs, with their water colours of Venice, the Dordogne at dusk or those embarrassing pictures of nudes and predictable fishing boats off the Isle of Mull - the jumble sale of art that the critics so deride. In fact, the critics might be disappointed. This may not be a show to shock but it is not one to bore. There are the firm and familiar favourites such as Gus Cummins, Albert Irvin, Humphrey Ocean and, of course, Eileen Cooper, her whimsical paintings of figures seemingly poised on some great adventure.
The work to decide the fate of the open submissions started on a chilly Monday in early April in a tent at the back of Burlington House because building work meant there was no spare room. "It was so bleak. We were all wrapped up to keep warm," says Cooper, who has an exhibition of new work called Dreams of Elsewhere around the corner in Cork Street. While all Academicians are entitled to show their work, the efforts of the amateurs are paraded in front of the judges over four days. Voting is by show of hands but if one of the RAs really wants a work chosen, even if he is the sole voice, he gets to hang it in his room.
"Some works everybody hates and some we all love, though there is more unanimity about the ones we hate" says Cooper. "There's not much debate, though. We have to crack through. With a group of diverse artists like us we'll be poles apart on some things but, of course, everybody can spot quality. I think you might be more critical of your own style because you know more about it. "But there is nothing arbitrary about our choices and increasingly we get tired of looking at work which is by the same people year in year out. They get selected for several years and then you think: 'God, it's the same thing, they haven't changed. I don't want their work this year.
"Although there is a lot of stuff in the show, we have made it work, I hope." The Making Space theme has indeed worked. There is a generosity of wall around the works that allows them to breathe and be independent. The first room, which is essentially abstract, is bold and open: Ed Ruscha's gaudy Blazing Orifices, Anselm Kiefer's huge, atmospheric triptych of a snowbound, empty forest and Robert Rauschenberg's work reside there.
Cooper's gallery in the Large Weston Room is more densely packed with prints, photographs, etchings and lithographs. She has a Paula Rego, a Louise Bourgeois, a splendidly curvy sculpture by Allen Jones and a "tea towel in blood". Next door in the Small Weston Room, 566 works are crammed in like British sunbathers on a beach in Benidorm. But here the sheer clutter of small pictures is ameliorated by one wall being devoted to works in black and white.
There is a shift in policy with one gallery being set aside for photography and moving images featuring works by Julian Opie, Gillian Wearing and Michael Craig-Martin. As the curator Richard Wilson says: "It's us posting a note to say 'this is the future.'" And for the first time, the exhibition has embraced film. (Just when most of the art world declares video to be out of fashion, as the critic from The Times commented.)
Never mind. This is video for those who are wary of the form. As Cooper put it: "Even artists who you would think would be tolerant of film and video installations might find it completely inappropriate to give a great amount of time to that sort of thing. We are all aware that unless you are familiar with that kind of work you feel uncomfortable - it's dark, you're probably tired and if you want to sit down you don't want to be there for 25 minutes or be halfway through a narrative. It can be a puzzle."
Wilson has created a mini-cinema with a screen that looks as if it is a wall torn from another building. There are 19 short films by 17 artists, including Sean Dower, Matt Calderwood and Rachel Lowe). The films range from 70 seconds to five minutes long, totalling 55 minutes. "The reason I proposed this film and video room is that these media are current practices and I think to include them gives the RA a greater diversity of art forms," Cooper says, pausing as a film based on a movie by David Cronenberg ends with a character's head exploding in great clouds of blood. "This all about young people making art with their laptops or mobiles."
From an exploding head to scenes of Venice (yes, there is one), from a display of charming works by the late Jean Cooke positioned opposite Damien Hirst's skin-stripped, muscular St Bartholomew, this splendidly contradictory mix could only be the RA Summer Exhibition. The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition runs until Aug 16. Tickets: 0844 209 1919 or www.royalacademy.org.uk. Eileen Cooper's Dreams of Elsewhere runs until June 27. Art First, 9 Cork St, London. www.artfirst.co.uk.