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Grayson Perry, “transvestite potter,” “national treasure,” and Turner Prize winner, is best known for his subversive ceramics and monumental tapestries in which he tackles the peculiarities of British culture. For this reason, the artist has yet to enjoy the same cult status in the US that he commands in the UK. Witty, affable, and entertaining, Perry was the first practicing artist to be selected for the Reith Lectures, an annual radio series inaugurated by the BBC in 1948. Chosen for the 2013 iteration, Perry joined a lineage of lecturers boasting Bertrand Russell, Edward Said, and Aung San Suu Kyi. Entitled Playing to the Gallery, the artist’s series of four lectures has now been revised and published in a book of the same name by Penguin Random House.
Accompanied by 35 David Shrigley–esque illustrations by Perry, the book is presented as a beginner’s guide to the machinations of the art world, though it also holds a mirror up to the so-called “certainty freaks” — members of the art world who have an axe to grind or are stubbornly set in their beliefs. “If there’s one message that I want you to take away it’s that anybody can enjoy art and anybody can have a life in the arts,” Perry writes in the introduction. “I want to ask — and answer! — the basic questions that some people might think are almost too gauche to ask. The art world needs people to keep asking it questions, and thinking about those questions helps the enjoyment and understanding of art.”
The book is structured after Perry’s lectures, with each chapter exploring a different theme. “Democracy Has Bad Taste” charts the power players of the art world (curators, dealers, critics, etc). “Beating the Bounds” and “Nice Rebellion, Welcome In!” examine shock tactics, the avant-garde, and the market’s co-option of rebellion. The final chapter, “I Found Myself in the Art World,” is a personal account of the artist’s creative principles, as well as a celebration of art education. A passage towards the end aptly summarizes Perry’s credos:
I don’t believe there is an avant-garde any more. There are just multiple sites all over the world at different levels, in different places, using different media for experimentation, and we live in this globalized, pluralistic art world with a lot of money sloshing around in it, and it’s as varied as we are. Most of it is rubbish, but that was ever thus, and some of it is absolutely amazing.
Perry’s view of the art world is largely Dantonian (his text refers to Arthur Danto more than any other theorist) in that he believes art making will continue without the sense of historical urgency it once claimed. Art will stumble along, but largely thanks to postmodernism’s skepticism, the belief in grand movements is over. Refreshingly, this is not something that Perry definitively celebrates or disdains.
In the book’s second chapter, the artist describes how a student once solicited his advice regarding subject matter. “Well I didn’t have one of those,” Perry retorts, referring to the student’s iPhone. “It’s a challenge for young people today … to navigate the abundance of information and images.” The smartphone age affords instant access to ceaseless information, but it also afflicts us with misinformation and the false sense that everything has been done before. Perry acknowledges the curse of self-consciousness, but encourages artists (and art-viewing readers) to navigate beyond it. “Art is not some fun add-on to life,” Perry maintains. “Go back to the Ice Age and the artists then were still making art even when living constantly under threat from starvation, cold and predators … The need to express oneself runs very, very deep.”
The key to Perry’s appeal is his ability to defend contemporary art’s raison d’être while skewering the pretension and absurdity of the art industry. Indeed, the book rollicks along thanks to Perry’s jovial jibes. A few examples:
On International Art English (i.e. “art speak”) —
Sounds a bit like inexpertly translated French.
On celebrity art projects —
It saddens me that “art project” is now a byword for useless, unskilled amateurism.
On artistic rebellion —
What [creative rebels] don’t realize is that by being all inventive and creative they’re actually playing into capitalism’s hands because the lifeblood of capitalism is new ideas. Contemporary art is like an R&D department for capitalism.
After winning the Turner Prize in 2003, Perry gradually positioned himself as the UK’s foremost spokesman for contemporary art, with his cheerful wit and public celebration of transvestism endearing him to a mass audience. In 2005, the artist starred in his first documentary for Channel 4 television, Why Men Wear Frocks, in which he discussed his transvestism; Perry’s alter ego, Claire — variously described by the artist as a “a 19th Century reforming matriarch,” “an aero-model-maker,” and “a fortysomething woman living in a Barratt home” — is arguably as famous as he is. There’s even the Grayson Perry Project, an annual competition in which students at Central St. Martins compete to make a new dress for the artist. In 2013, Perry was awarded a CBE by the Queen for his services to contemporary art.
As a self-described “fully paid-up member of the establishment,” Perry has come to a point where he must strike a sufficient balance of praise and critique if he is to maintain his role as the art world’s Virgil. Thanks to his wit and self-awareness, Playing to the Gallery mostly succeeds in this regard, though there were moments when I wished he would be a little fiercer. Perry is acutely aware of this dilemma and quotes a statement by artist Nam June Paik: “Every artist should bite the hand that feeds him … but not too hard.”
In a section dealing with museum sponsorship, Perry name-checks artist Hans Haacke’s critical take on Mobil’s corporate policies, but doesn’t mention the current, ongoing controversy regarding BP’s sponsorship of major British art institutions. One of Perry’s most successful exhibitions, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (2011–12), was held at the British Museum, which has been supported by BP since 1996 (BP describes itself as “the British Museum’s longest standing partner”). Perry has previously told the Guardian that he is “understanding of the need for corporate sponsorship.”
Throughout an eloquent defense of art education, Perry never explicitly mentions or responds to the decision by the UK’s coalition government to raise the annual cap on university tuition fees to £9,000 (~$13,600) per year in 2010. “I feel very heartened by the fact that so many young people are prepared to risk debt and disappointment because they believe in art,” Perry states. “Even though the statistics are staring them in the face, telling them they’re probably perpetuating their poverty by doing it.” The chapter is also a missed opportunity to discuss the dismal representation of people of color in the arts. In her introduction to the artist’s first Reith lecture, broadcaster Sue Lawly remarked that “[Perry] sees himself as a modern Hogarth or Gillray, an acute but irreverent observer of the social scene.” If Perry wishes to cement his reputation as a truly intrepid art world satirist, he’ll need to bite a little harder.
Despite these critical shortcomings, as a primer for that friend of yours who “doesn’t get” contemporary art, Playing to the Gallery is a resounding success. Perry manages to discuss art and creativity without pandering to loaded and abused terms such as “masterpiece” or “genius” (“I have a particularly acute allergy to cliches,” he writes, “because my mother ran off with the milkman”).
It feels appropriate that Perry ends his book with a meditation on art’s emotional value as opposed to its institutional and commercial functions, talking movingly of the role that art making played throughout his adolescence and education. It’s all too easy to forget that art is fundamentally about expression and communication. The artist, Perry jokes, is required to wear “a breast plate of facetiousness” and wield “a blade of cynicism” in an age as jaded as our own:
Because of course, art’s primary role is not as an asset class and it’s not necessarily about an urban-regeneration catalyst. It’s most important role is to make meaning.