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Playing to the Gallery?

In his recent Reith Lectures for the BBC, artist Grayson Perry addresses some of the issues that surround Contemporary Art. Generally speaking the points he makes are reasonable, but his positioning of himself in relation to the art world is, I think, suspect.
Grayson Perry is a flirt. He flits from point to point without really making a joined up case. He’s entertaining and, in the terms of the title – Playing to the Gallery – he succeeds. Flirts need charisma and Perry has it in spades. He’s capable of seducing us and shocking us. Great company. But scratch the surface and what have we got?
Perry characterises himself as a ‘foot-soldier’ in the art world and not a commentator and he admits that autobiography will be his primary tool of enquiry. This ought to ring alarm bells for us. We’re listening to opinion, mixed with snippets of evidence that back that opinion up. Neither is he above a cheap shot or a joke, just when it gets interesting.
For example, he makes a serious point: ‘If there’s one message that I want these […] lectures to carry, it is that anybody can enjoy art and anybody can have a life in the arts – even me!’, and then can’t resist his (stock) punchline: ‘An Essex transvestite potter […] the mafia has even let me in.’
This quote gets to the heart of my issue with his lectures, he makes a big deal of being an outsider by highlighting that he attended an unfashionable polytechnic, failed to get into the Chelsea MA programme (too much ‘of an artist’, apparently), adopting pottery as a way of working and so on. But of course in many ways, he’s not an outsider. His works are collectable and he won the Turner Prize. He’s presented television shows and is a lecturer at Central Martin’s College in London. Well, if he’s an outsider, he’s one of many.
The points he makes in the first lecture aren’t wrong per se, but neither are they particularly original. Curators, critics and buyers determine the value of art works? This shouldn’t be news. He mentions Sarah Thornton’s excellent Seven Days in the Art World, but mostly to get a laugh about Artforum’s ‘wrong kind of unreadability’; a point Thornton makes more effectively and with a more nuanced context.
As the series progressed, I found myself warming to his attitude. In the light of my recent post extolling the virtues of work and ‘getting stuck in’, I can’t take issue with his comment about beer, x-factor and felt-tips. But I also found his deflection and non-sequiturs frustrating. It’s also difficult for me to critique him because he’s not trying to win me over – I’m already convinced of the value of art. That is, the terms of my critique are ones he’d whole-heartedly reject.
Perry is adopting a position and it’s important to realise that. It’s contrived and a good deal of his value to the art world rests on him playing out that position. It’s not that he’s lying, but perhaps there’s a clue in the early part of this lecture: he is still ‘dabbling in Performance Art’.
I recommend listening to all of the lectures, but be aware that he’s seducing us and we’re complicit in that exchange. By the final lecture he admits that he has to protect his vulnerability in order to successfully make work. These lectures, I contend, flatter to deceive and are part of that fortification.

Posted by author: Bryan
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15 thoughts on “Playing to the Gallery?

  • You’re questioning his ‘outsider status’, and I know what you are trying to say… How can he be an outsider when he is part of the art world and has become so successful? But I can also relate to Perry. His own struggles within the art world has enabled him to relate to the public, and try and convince us that we can all enjoy art, and its ok for us to have an opinion about art. Maybe I have just fallen for his seduction tricks though.

  • Thank you for this post, Bryan and I hope even more will listen to the lectures as a result. I think you make some valid points here. Personally I wouldn’t say that I was seduced in any way, since I agreed with most of what he had to say. (I have yet to listen to the final instalment, I must say!) But I don’t see the harm in engaging with your audience – I wish my lectures got as many laughs!
    But you hint towards matters of Perry’s delivery which many have listeners have taken exception to. What really got my blood boiling were the ignorant comments on Radio 4’s Feedback last week
    Many it seemed to me, did not just object to the non-academic tone of Perry’s lecture, but I wonder whether their true objection is that contemporary art has any academic merit full stop. It wasn’t actually that the series was delivered by a Essexian transvestite artist was a problem; but that it was AN ARTSIT.
    Perry might tart himself about; slag off the institutions, commercial galleries, and unlike the rest of us, not have to worry too much about the electricity bill, but even on the radio, you can see his tongue poking in the side of his cheek. I’m just massively thankful he’s got people talking about the institutions and what their own relationship to them is.

  • It wasn’t easy to write. Partly because I don’t disagree with a lot of what he has to say. But there’s something about the way he went about it that annoys me. It’s shallow and a bit sentimental, but is also wildly enthusiastic and encouraging.
    All I’m asking is that people listen to the talks in a knowing way, as it were.

  • Hi Bryan, I still have to listen to the last one of the four lectures, but I have to say I’ve enjoyed each of the first three. Mind you if anyone tested me on what exactly he said I’d be stuck – it was entertaining and quite uplifting, but I’m not sure I remember the critical messages in detail (but that could be my monkey mind).
    What did I find uplifting? – that ‘anything goes’ in art as long as its well made and sincere: that the days of post-modern shock, cynicism and irony may finally be on their way out (hooray!): that he is a staunch advocate for affordable space for artists to create, as this not only feeds the creative economy, but it also is a harbinger or urban regeneration: etc, etc, etc…lots of positive energy about the value of art and artists. I appreciate that none of this is new news to practising artists – but its good to hear nonetheless.
    I also can forgive him his ‘chip’ on his shoulder about being an outsider transvestite potter from Essex. That’s quite a lot of ‘otherness’ that he’s had to manage throughout his life, and even though he says of himself that he is ‘now a fully paid up member of the establishment’ it doesn’t mean he can just drop the years of feeling like he was beyond the pale. At least he is using it to build bridges with his audience through humour.
    The only thing he says on which I have a different opinion, is that artists these days chase technology vs driving it. I suspect its always been the case that most artists chase technology, but a few in each generation have been real innovators and driven new processes, materials and thinking. These days there is a bit of a resurgence in art-meets-science where artists work closely with technologists and scientists to push the boundaries of both.
    There’s even an MA degree at St Martins on the very subject, which is supported by the Wellcome Foundation.
    And this book – Art+Science Now (Stephen Wilson) is full of artist working at this interface.
    In the lecture (#3) the last one I heard, he was making the point that we have reached the ‘final state of art’ because anything goes. That there is no ‘avant garde’ any more, just multiple sites of experimentation. I like that idea. It means that the artist no longer has to be shocking, political or cynical and we can move back to creating work that comes from a deep place of personal truth.
    He also said (as many do) that today, anyone can be an artist. It makes me think of societies around the world where everyone is an artist to some greater or lesser degree (in some parts of Indonesia, or some aboriginal Australian communities) where art is central to everyone’s lives. Is this where we are heading? He doesn’t go that far – but it made me wonder….
    I agree he often let his ideas develop then cut them off – but all in all I found lots of food for thought.

    • I made a few notes on his lecture “marking the boundaries” and had little to show at the end of it and, what I had, felt very depressing –art is no more –
      -I think Grayson is fantastic but he is a showman in his dress his speech and his work and I think that is how he has managed to succeed.

  • Still haven’t got round to hearing the lectures but will now do so with a few questions to answer. I once saw a docudrama about Turner. Apparently his Cockney accent and direct approach made him unpopular as a lecturer at the Academy and he was discouraged from giving more. Thank goodness we no longer have these prejudices.

  • No way is Grayson Perry an outsider, as a previous respondent pointed out he makes a good living, his work is admired and collected etc etc.,
    But then I thought about a different interpretation of ‘outsider’. I wonder how many of us practising artists have a touch of autism?
    I prefer my own company, can spend days and weeks working/ walking without the need to ‘socialise’. I find loud noise, smells etc difficult. When working I often forget to eat, ignore the phone.
    Is it this ‘obsessional’ characteristic which makes Grayson say he is an outsider?
    How many others feel ‘different’ to the normals out there!

  • Was it meant to be thoughtful or entertainment? There were some interesting points, how to ‘value’ art, his tests on whats art or not. Whilst not particularly deep, I did find myself looking forward to the next one.
    The transcripts are also available as pdf’s .

  • I suspect anyone writing/performing for the BBC is issued with a set of guidelines. The BBC Mission Statement is ” To enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.”
    I think Grayson covered all three aspects quite well on a radio station that has such a diverse audience. To most of the listeners “art” is a mystery subject and anything too deep would not have been appropriate.

  • I think there is a great deal more depth to Perry’s lectures than many are giving them credit for. Like his pots and tapestries, one has to look beyond the way they are presented…listen to what he said rather than the way he said it and them why he said what he did in the way he did…I think then the depth begins to be revealed. These lectures were the work of an artist rather than an academic cultural historian and I suspect that much of the criticism in the press is as much snobbery (Essex in the voice, money in the bank account, and pretty frocks rather than elbow patches and corduroy) and protectionism (we can’t have lectures given by practitioners under the age of retirement or we will all lose our status) by as informed critique. Bordieu’s theories on cultural capital may be out of fashion but they go a long way to explain all this.

  • Well Bryan, thank you for starting that debate. I am a very mature student at OCA, listened to all of the lectures and thought they were great.
    Although I have always appreciated anything related to the art world, struggling with dyslexia, having very simple but hard working parents and dare I say it, growing up in Essex – how refreshing it was to listen and also read the beautifully written comments in this blog.

  • well grayson gets the ideas/brain going, i love his energy and big pots- and the ideas rush round all mover the pots, but do not relate to the pots at all- just like the potty, dotty frocks-to the man!!!….

  • I thoroughly enjoyed the lectures, they were interesting, entertaining and I agreed with most of what he said. As previous respondents have said, the listening public is varied and most would not have an in-depth knowledge of the art world, so would gain much from the lectures. I will listen again and study the transcripts, I do not mind hearing a serious subject told in a witty or tongue in cheek manner. What is important to me is that he, a practising artist, is bringing art to the masses.

  • Reading the comments people have made here has been interesting. Perry pitches the lectures at – unsurprisingly – the gallery. He’s trying to please a constituancy that he values, I think. That audience wants to be entertained and informed (anyone remember ‘edutainment’?), and that requires that he pull the veil back a little on the art work to show how venal it might be, but not to thoroughly exclude an audience that thinks it has some agency in the matter. They may have, the people in the various Q+A sessions seemed to be a version of ‘the great and the good’. That audience also want Perry to be Grayson Perry. That is, turn up in a frock, go on a bout it about it a bit and to shock them a little.
    If I were to use a ridiculously extended food metaphor to talk about this series of talks (I’m not convinced they’re lectures, to be honest), I’d say that Perry is making soup from the bones but that there’s precious little meat. What he’s using is fine, but it could be richer.

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