Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry

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Reviewed by Annabel

Grayson Perry CBE RA, the Turner Prize-winning transvestite potter, is becoming a national treasure – so much so, that the BBC invited him to give their annual series of Reith lectures in 2013. These radio lectures are named after the Beeb’s first Director-General and were inaugurated in 1948 to advance public understanding of contemporary cultural issues, given by leading figures of the day.

He may now be a member of the establishment, but ever the colourful character, Perry is a playful radical and natural wit. These qualities make him the ideal artist to guide us through the world of contemporary art in the 21st Century.

His book, Playing to the Gallery, is based upon his four Reith Lectures. I enjoyed listening to them at the time, and reading the text again, augmented by Perry’s many satirical cartoons illustrating it, was a pleasure.

Right from the cover, which recalls the incident in 2012 when a Russian artist scrawled a graffiti tag in permanent marker on a Rothko painting worth millions at the Tate in London, Perry is telling us he’s on our side – ‘not Sucking up to an Academic Elite’ as he says in his introduction. (I love that he has dropped his famous teddy, Alan Measles, in there too).

The first section, Democracy has bad taste, discusses good and bad art, ways of judging it and what people want (if they know, that is!). He tells us how a pair of Russian artists commissioned a series of polls to ask precisely this question:

And the results were quite shocking. 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. After the experience they said, ‘In looking for freedom, we found slavery.’

This is compounded by galleries pricing pieces by size, irrespective of quality. He describes the mechanisms by which work is validated by dealers, collectors, museums, the general public etc, and how artists can attain the ‘layer of patina that gradually builds into a reputation.’ He is quite scathing in an ironic way of ‘International Art English’ – the often unintelligible texts on the wall beside an artwork, how the suffix ‘-ality’ is added to words to indicate seriousness and so on.

In Beating the Bounds, Perry discusses what counts as art.  It started with Duchamp’s urinal and Modernism’s ‘it’s art if I say it is’ attitude, taken further by pop art like Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes that appeared to be the real thing, but were ‘art Brillo boxes’.  Perry takes a moment to give us a nice aside about this:

There’s a nice little ironic twist to this story – the guy who designed the very attractive logo for the Brillo boxes was an abstract expressionist painter. So he played a part in the downfall of his own art movement in many ways.

Perry goes on in this chapter to outline a series of tests he has devised ‘so you might know when you’re looking at a work of art and not just at some old rubbish.’  These are great fun – and could be made into a handy aide-memoire card for your wallet…

The third section deals with what the late Robert Hughes called ‘The Shock of the New’. Where is the Avant-Garde these days? This section has some great stories in it, from Jackson Pollock to Brian Eno, but I won’t spoil them by elucidating further.

Finally Perry talks about own career, and the challenges to today’s up and coming young artists. I imagine that one of the hardest things for artists starting out is to be original. Perry argues that at first it is natural to be influenced by other artists. ‘Originality takes time. Carving out a career takes time.’ This, it is agreed, is best done by staying on the same bus, not changing routes all the time.

In this book of the lectures, he may come across as entertaining and fun, but there was a serious point behind them – and in helping us to decipher some of the questions we may have when confronted with modern art, he does us a good service, while making us chuckle with him all the way.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books Editors, and sadly hasn’t managed to see one of Perry’s vases in real life yet. [She has now – Ed]

Grayson Perry, Playing to the Gallery, (Particular Books, London, 2014), 978-1846148576, hardback, 138 pages.

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