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.