English artist Grayson Perry is known best for his eccentricity, something so many artists are known best for that it loses its jagged charm after a while. A transvestite who makes brightly coloured (even autobiographical) ceramic vases and pots, winning the Turner Prize for them in 2003, Perry almost begs to be typecast as your favourite artist. In 2013, he also became the first practising artist to deliver the Reith Lectures, a series of radio lectures that have been commissioned annually by the BBC since 1948, given by luminaries and thinkers of the day and, now, potters (as Perry, with his characteristic self-deprecation, likes to refer to himself). And who says one can’t be both? Delivered under the roguish title of Playing to the Gallery, the lectures sought to confront the protean nature and habits of art and to render those habits recognisable and, as much as possible, understandable for all. In 2014, a book based on the lectures, Playing to the Gallery: Helping contemporary art in its struggle to be understood, was published by Particular Books. So now both contemporary artists and those who stand on the peripheries watching them struggle have Perry’s aphorisms in writing.
The choice of the title itself is a helpful indication of what to expect from the (self-proclaimed) middlebrow ‘artist’s artist’, to whom still cling vestiges of surprise at having become famous and acclaimed, and having found himself inexplicably and inextricably at the centre of the art world. Perhaps because he never expected to have a plinth to himself in this unstable pavilion, he has retained, even after the plinth designation, a wry honesty about the whole affair. To him, making it big, or simply making it anywhere in the art world is something that requires playing to the gallery – an idiomatic expression for acting or performing in a manner that awes the crowds and wins their approval. Accordingly, the four chapters of the book discuss how validation is earned (sometimes just stumbled upon) in the art world, the parties responsible for providing that validation, the fickle measures of defining and judging art, and the reverberating question – can anything new even be done? The conclusions drawn, however, are nebulous, therefore inclusive, and because he is frank to a fault, Perry tells you right at the start that you can all partake in art – “But 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 – even me! For even I, an Essex transvestite potter, have been let in by the art-world mafia.”
He approaches art and its dichotomies in as lucid a way as possible, drily observing that “the art world is often scared of everyday clarity.” The passages are lined with anecdotal offerings, drawn from both the artist’s own life and those of other influential figures from the art world, and the views expressed are mostly subjective, though here and there propped up with historical evidence. For instance, in “Democracy Has Bad Taste” (the chapter on quality and its determinants), Perry narrates how, in the 1990s, the Russian artists Komar and Melamid devised a playful scheme for finding out what people really wanted in a painting. After having polling companies conduct polls in various countries to ascertain what people wanted to see in a painting, and what they did not, the duo created a series of Most Wanted and Most Unwanted paintings. “And the results were quite shocking,” remarks Perry, “In nearly every country, all people really wanted was a landscape with a few figures around, animals in the foreground, mainly blue. It’s quite depressing.” Of course, with art and any discourse on it, it must be conceded that every argument will have a counter-argument and you are bound to catch yourself running around in circles, trailing paint flakes and repartees that establish nothing. So you forgive Perry when he first encourages “any oik, any prole” to interact with art, then admits to feeling sad at the predictability of popular taste. And, after all, popular taste or public opinion isn’t the only or even the most important of the validating factors, which range from monetary value to the competence of curators and dealers to the ‘seriousness’ of the language you use in the art world.
For some, this kind of open-ended and rather blanket ramble on contemporary art may be problematic (the Telegraph’s art critic Richard Dorment’s review of Perry’s Reith Lectures was scathing for just this reason), but to be fair to Perry, he never aspires or claims to be scholarly. He only wishes to demythologise contemporary art practise and reveal contemporary artists, including himself, as the self-conscious, “baloney generating”,,neurotically self-justifying performers that they are. He proffers that “(t)he very idea of there being boundaries is probably an anathema to many in the art world, who like to think that to be an artist is to have ultimate freedom.” Yet, at the same time, a constant thirst for approbation also governs an artist’s actions (“That worrying about what others will think about our aesthetic choices is a part of the self-consciousness that is in the DNA of modernism,” writes Perry). So that must mean there are some boundaries, and these he explores in the chapter titled Beating the Bounds, where he goes over certain tests one can use to decide if something is art or not. These tests – “is it in a gallery or an art context?”, ‘is it a boring version of something else?’, “is it made by an artist?”, “the rubbish dump test” – come with entertaining examples from the history of modern art, featuring the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Cornelia Parker, and Martin Parr.
It would be difficult to take home just one lesson from Playing to the Gallery. But if there is a crux, I would say it is self-consciousness and how crucially it affects the contemporary artist and his practice. After leading you through the many manoeuvres and stratagems, the many debacles and rescues, that make up today’s visual tradition, Perry ends whimsically by taking us to the moment in his life when he, as a nine-year-old boy made to wear a smock for pottery class at school, felt his personal story as an artist begin. “But ironically”, he adds, “at almost exactly the same time as I made that decision to become an artist, I lost my ability to play.” Alone with his brother’s toy cars one day, Perry realised that he couldn’t “lose (him)self” in the act of playing with them, like he used to – “Self-consciousness had crept in; a pall of embarrassment cast a shadow, like the Wicked Witch of the West, across my imaginary landscape.” Is that why he sees a career in visual art as something of a farce? Because he did not stop playing. Only now he plays to the gallery. And what witticisms of his you may miss in the text are reinforced by his lively, clever illustrations that can also independently serve as a satirical strip on art world foibles.
Grayson Perry, Playing to the Gallery: Helping Contemporary Art in Its Struggle to be Understood, is published by Particular Books, 114 pages, 2014.
Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan.
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