20 November 2014

My job is to notice things

Grayson Perry's acute observations about modern art are at their best when they are personal*

Playing to the Gallery: Helping Contemporary Art in its Struggle to Be Understood by Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry's transformation from freakish outsider to mainstream darling is a sign of our times.  It doesn't seem so long ago that the Turner Price-winning artist was seen as a man in a frock who made pots with rude designs on them.  He was castigated in the press for his art: people regarded his alter-ego Claire with deep suspicion.
He has done more to make transvestism acceptable than years of dogged campaigning.  He delivered the Reith Lectures done up to the nines, with outlandish hats, sequinned eyes and a teddy bear called Mr Measles on his arm - and everybody cheered. Literally.

His pots sell for thousands, and formed part of a though-provoking exhibition in the British Museum which he curated (went there on one of my very infrequent visits to London).  His tapestries have television series devoted to them.  He is already a CBE.  

Playing to the Gallery's text is closely based on Perry's four Reith Lectures, delivered in 2013.  The book has the same conversational tone and lively intelligence.  Beautifully illustrated, it reveals Perry to be not just an artist but a wordsmith too.

For example, when describing the way the word 'art' has come to be all-encompassing, he says:  'When I think of the sort of bag that art might be, it's one of those very cheap dustbin liners - the ones that, when you drag them out of the dustbin and you're walking towards the front door, you're praying that ll the rubbish won't spill out all over the hall.'
Then there's his 'handbag and hipster test' for judging whether or not something is a work of art.  'If there are lots of people with beards and glasses and single-speed bikes, or oligarchs' wives with great big handbags looking a bit perturbed and puzzled by what they're staring at, then it's probably art.'
This is writing with the eye of someone who says: 'My job is to notice things that other people don't notice.'  It is full of insight and of telling points.

Describing artists as 'the shock troops of gentrification' is a brilliant way to sum up the process in which derelict warehouses are replaced by coffee shops and, ultimately, by designer lofts.  It is acute and funny at the same time.
This, I think is why people love Perry so much.  He is really smart.  he says the things that we wish we had thought of, and asks the questions that we want to ask.  What is art?  How can we tell if what we are looking at is any good?  Is it OK to like certain artists?
The trouble is that when it comes to answering those questions, his arguments are as sinuous as his vases.  All this thoughts head in interesting directions, but if you break the line of his reasoning down, step by step, it doesn't take you to a firm conclusion.

In the end, however, that probably doesn't matter. Perry represents a gentle strain of English eccentricity, a kindly, soft-eyed wandering that doesn't necessarily require hard-line outcomes.
This is the quality revealed in the best section of both lectures and book - the one in which he describes his own discovery of art, and suggests that most artists are driven to create by some kind of trauma.
He goes on to talk about The Art Room, a charity that gives troubled children a chance to create objects that they can take home.  'When a child takes a decorated stool or lampshade back to a home that he little furniture and bare light bulbs, it must give them a sense of empowerment, that in a small way they have begun to change the world.  Because, of course, art's ... most important role is to make meaning.'
And there, in three words, Perry comes u with a definition of art, one drawn from the deepest strains of emotion.  It makes the rest seem like so much throat clearing.  For all the fun of the ride he has taken us on, it is this simple empathy that is his most important contribution to the debate.

Taste is woven into our class system:

* extracts from an article by Sarah Crompton in the Telegraph.

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