Brian Eno and Grayson Perry on how the internet taught us we are all perverts

Creativity, popularity and pornography – and why great art always involves losing control.

New Statesman
Of friendly bondage: Eno (left) and Perry won't relinquish their fascination with pushing boundaries. Image: Muir Vidler

When the musician Brian Eno spoke to the New Statesman in May, he seemed to be irritated about the art world, its inflated prices and its critical language that so few people understand. When the potter and painter Grayson Perry began giving his Reith Lectures last month he paid tribute to Eno’s 1995 “sabotage” of a Marcel Duchamp urinal in New York (Eno siphoned his own urine into the artwork to explore whether the piece might be more valuable if it had been “worked upon” by two people). They had never met before but it made sense to try to bring them together in the New Statesman. They met at Perry’s studio in Islington, north London. Eno came with a Dictaphone and a magazine about electronic music; Perry was dressed as a man.

Brian Eno [Looking at Perry’s new kiln] That’s a big machine, isn’t it!

Grayson Perry Yes, if you want to make a big pot, you’ve got to have a big kiln.

BE So, what shall we talk about today?

GP That’s up to you. I have many well-travelled pathways in interviews, and in many ways I’d rather not go down any of them.

BE Me, too. I did have one idea, coming over, and that’s why I brought this keyboard magazine. I was thinking about the differences between the music and art worlds, and one thing that strikes me is that professional musicians are quite happy to share things with each other – their ideas and techniques, the tricks that made them famous. Is that something more characteristic of music than art?

GP Well, music is more collaborative. In the art world, originality is seen as a precious commodity and it’s increasingly difficult to get because the territory of art is so trampled. I always think that painters are fighting over the last original brushstroke. To find your own voice is incredibly hard. There’s very few people who have a revelatory, original thought; I think they’re almost mythical. Most people start off being someone else and then they make mistakes.

BE I find it interesting that artists are expected to be able to talk about their work in critical art language now – they have to have “personal statements”.

GP As someone who uses words a lot in my work, I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of it; but I’ve always been one for clarity, you know. As for the language of the art world – “International Art English” – I think obfuscation was part of its purpose, to protect what in fact was probably a fairly simple philosophical point, to keep some sort of mystery around it. There was a fear that if it was made understandable, it wouldn’t seem important.

BE Do you think it was primarily economic – in the sense that if you want to charge very high prices for things, you somehow have to make them appear very valuable?

GP Well, intellectual importance is directly linked to financial value in the art world. I mean, that’s the thing you really want – museum quality. You want to go down in the annals of art history.

BE I’ve been thinking recently about artists who were huge stars in their day who disappeared, like Sir Frank Brangwyn.

GP Or Thomas Kinkade. At one point he was the richest artist in the world. He made schmaltzy pictures of woodland scenes with cottages but he never sold the originals. He had a massive print thing going, and they reckon at one point one in six houses in the States had a Thomas Kinkade print. But he’s never going to feature in any art history.

BE It’s funny, because in pop music that kind of career path would be completely acceptable. First of all, we deal only in reproductions and the original doesn’t matter – there’s no difference between the master tape and what you hear on the CD.

GP No. I find myself thinking quite often that the art world has no equivalent of the popular, really. People always mention Jack Vettriano or Beryl Cook. Even Banksy, to a certain extent, is a very popular artist who’s not necessarily welcomed into the fine art world. But they’re exceptions, and they are not the people who line up their paintings on the railings in Bayswater.

BE The problem with fine art is that in most cases people have to make a special excursion to go and look at it: they can’t afford to own it. So it isn’t really part of their life in the way that music can be.

GP Well, in these sorts of conversations, the phrase “3D printer” always comes up – you know, musicians, authors and journalists have all been shat on by the software companies so it’s the artist’s turn soon, and people will just start downloading your works for themselves. I don’t see it happening just yet . . .

BE But even if it did happen, would it really matter? It just means you make work in a different way. People said that making records would take the life out of music, but then recording became a new kind of art. Now, of course, we’re in a slightly different phase where people are so unfascinated by recording that festivals are on the increase like nobody’s business.

GP Yeah, and I think that the art world benefits from the digital natives, too, because they want a live experience – to go to an art gallery, to be in the presence of an object. I think it goes right back to relics and idols. We learned how to look at art from religion. [The German art historian] Hans Belting thought our whole idea of “fine art” started about 1400, when objects weren’t just seen as religious artefacts any more and started to be appreciated as works themselves.

BE I think one of the big sources of confusion in any discussion about art is the difference between “intrinsic” value and conferred value. Nearly all art criticism is based on the idea that there’s such a thing as intrinsic value –

GP No, I would disagree with that. I think beauty’s a constructed notion, and it’s cocreated in the same way as conferred value. It goes back to that idea of looking at something as fine art: why does everyone think “that is a lovely thing”? Because they’ve been conditioned to do so. Different cultures have different ideas of what is beautiful. I’ve never been to China, but whenever I see Chinese art there’s something about their sense of colour, composition, texture, that for me is always slightly off – and I’m thinking, why don’t I just dive into that artwork and completely love it? It’s because I grew up as a westerner and we were completely separate We might as well have been on the moon for most of history.

BE Our experience of any painting is always the latest line in a long conversation we’ve been having with painting. There’s no way of looking at art as though you hadn’t seen art before.

GP Yeah – that’s why I have the rubbish dump test. When I was at college, one of the tutors used to say, “Oh, that won’t pass the rubbish dump test,” which is, if you throw your artwork on a rubbish dump, would people, members of the public, pick it up, thinking it was an artwork? It’s quite a cruel test but, you know . . .

BE I tried this with my friend [the South African artist] Beezy Bailey: we’d been doing some paintings together and we decided just to put some out on the street and see what people did. It was very funny. We hid behind a wall and watched people. Most of them didn’t pick them up.

GP With a lot of art, people wouldn’t! But I do think the Duchampian magic of bringing an outside object into a gallery seems fairly thin these days – what he did was amazing but at the same time, a hundred years later, I want something more. I always come back to the fact that all the urinals you see in the museums around the world, the so-called Duchamp urinals, they all had to be remade by a skilled potter.

BE Because they couldn’t find the original, could they?

GP Exactly! [Sing-song] Nah-nah-nah-nahnah! BEGood point.

GP I was talking to the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and he said, “When you appropriate something, you have to be smarter than it.” You’ve got to say, “I’m going to make that more rich, more complex, more elaborate . . .” you’ve got to do better with the thing you’re dragging into the gallery.

BE Well, some ideas don’t actually have that much extension left in them. There’s a whole branch of conceptual art that I was very much immersed in at the end of the Sixties and early Seventies, and it kind of petered out. A lot of things that are being done now I call “onelinerism”, where really the description of the work is as good as the work itself.

GP The YBAs did to a certain extent rehash the work of that late-Sixties, early-Seventies period, but what they did on top of it was make it very appealing, very sensual, and sort of covetable. They put it through an advertising agency, almost.

That said, I called it Theme Park Plus Sudoku. People wanted spectacle – they wanted big, shocking, engaging art, colourful and funny – but they wanted a little puzzle, too: “Hmm, what’s this about?” The problem is, the worst of that kind of art leaves you with a feeling of: “Is that it?”

BE One of the messages of contemporary art has been that, well, anyone could do it . . . GP Well, that’s something I would refute. But I was thinking about this – how do you become a contemporary artist? Well, you could just say you are one and start doing something, and in a purely literal sense you’ll be right. But you’re never going to have a career that way. As Constable said 200 years ago, the self-taught artists were taught by a very ignorant person. You have to go to art school. You don’t meet an artist in the art world who’s not been to art school. There will be undiscovered geniuses out there in Mali or Brazil or China because they’re not cultures that have been strip-mined by dealers and curators yet. But in the west [phone starts ringing] – Oh my God, sorry about this, it’s so rare for my phone to ring . . .

BE I’m interested that you don’t have a phalanx of assistants.

GP No. I have an assistant who fights email for me, but there’s not a lot I could delegate, really. I toy with the idea . . .

BE I’ve never been able to delegate either. I’ve tried so often to have somebody who can help me do music, and I just have to look over their shoulder too much, so it’s not comfortable for them, and it doesn’t save me any time.

GP My wife has this theory that the happiest people are people who say, “That will do.” Today, I went to buy a bin, just for the fricking kitchen here in the studio, you know, but the ones they had in the hardware shop I didn’t like, so I’m still without a bin and I’ll waste another hour trying to find the right bin somewhere.

Somebody who goes “that will do” is probably the happier person in the long run.

BE I do have one good working relationship at the moment, with a guy called Peter Chilvers, who’s a software code writer. We’ve been making apps together for iPad and iPhone, and that’s been a good collaboration because there are quite large areas of nonoverlap.

GP Yeah. I’m working on an architectural project where we’re building a house in Essex, and that’s been a pretty collaboration, too. I’d always wanted to make a place of pilgrimage. So I was looking at religious buildings, but I had to be talked down from some of my more kitsch fantasies by the architect, who had a better handle on the dignity of an object in the landscape.

BE Is it a private house?

GP It’ll be a holiday let. It has an altar and will have tapestries and sculptures, and the outside is going to be completely clad in tiles. I’m fascinated by the idea of pilgrimage, again going back to that idea that in a virtual world you want to experience the real thing. I think pilgrimage is more popular now than ever, whether people know it or not. When I rocked up at Santiago de Compostela on my bike, they gave me a form and it said, “Is your purpose spiritual, cultural or sport?” If you put “spiritual”, you got a really elaborate certificate, but I put cultural and sport so I got a much cheaper, more prosaic one. I loved the fact that it was so banal.

BE If you’re making a new place of pilgrimage, how do you make it seductive enough for people to want to go and spend time there? What do you call upon if you haven’t got religion?

GP I think one of the things people always do is have their photograph taken in front of something now. You’ve got to kind of think about what is realistic behaviour for modern people. When we were on the road to Santiago, I saw loads of people who were more likely to be there because of Paulo Coelho’s book than the Bible. I said, “I bet when we get there, you can get a bong with a Santiago St James shell on it” – the logo –and you could. Increasingly, contemporary art overlaps so much with religion. If you look at all the art centres being built over the past 20 years in Britain, they’re all trying in a way to build pilgrimage sites so they can get the tourists in. It’s a good tourist dollar, in a middle-class, organic-quiche-eating way.

BE But so many of the things we like doing really fall under the umbrella of surrender. That’s sort of what a pilgrimage is, isn’t it? We like putting ourselves into situations where we let go of some control and we’re swept along by something. You’re told what to do and you’re told that when you get there – or in the process – something will happen to you. If you think of sex, drugs, art, religion, they all actually offer you the chance to be taken over, or to let go.

GP Yes, because I think there’s a whole horror of not knowing what to do. But I think conservatism is quite a damaging mental health condition. Anybody worth their salt is up for a challenge. If you’ve got lots of things going and you’re willing to branch out, you’re more likely to survive dementia and all sorts of things. The major influence on me in the last 20 years has been psychotherapy. We look at all human activity through the lens of our emotions. The most brilliant people are often the most difficult, because they try and talk themselves out of this the whole time. But all problems need cleverness, and emotional intelligence is something different.

BE This is why the idea of surrender is so interesting to me, because surrendering is what we are most frightened of doing. Everything is telling you to stay in control. One of the really bad things that’s happened in the art world recently is the idea that a piece of work is as valuable as the amount it can be talked about. So these little pieces of paper you see beside every artwork, in every gallery: if you watch people, they look quickly at the painting, then they read for a long time, then look quickly at the painting again. The analytical mind always wants to say, “OK, I understand this. It’s no problem, it’s no threat.”

GP Well, it’s the classic result of the fact that we hate not knowing. I feel it in myself. I want to tidy things up in my mind. My ideal artwork is one where I have the complete idea, it’s watertight, it’s going to look beautiful: all I’ve got to do is craft it; I can relax and put the radio on. And that would be a dream for me, my own tradition. I’m jealous of those artists who rock up in the studio every morning and do a version a tiny little bit different from what they did the day before.

BE Albert Irvin. I love his work, and I look at it and think: “How nice to go into your old age knowing what you’re going to do every day.”

GP One of the things I really enjoy doing is drawing with only half my mind on it – so I’ll have a couple of beers and get my pens out, and I’ll sit in front of X Factor, and I’m half watching the telly and half drawing. I don’t give a damn; I’m really free. And at the same time I’m operating because I’ve got my lifetime of experience to bear on it.

BE Yes, sure – in a way, you liberate that experience.

GP Yes. I wish I’d stop having fricking ideas and trying to make work that’s got somehow socially applicable.

BE Do you finish everything?

GP Not everything, not nowadays. I used to.

BE I finish so few of the things I start. A lot of the stuff that I’m doing is just seeing how new tools work. So, in order to do that, I try to make a piece of music with it. And often it produces a notebook sketch, really.

GP Yeah, I am loath to make a cock-up! But creativity is mistakes and if you can’t accept that, don’t get involved.

BE So that’s a way of saying creativity is letting yourself lose control?

GP Yeah, you’ve got to do risk. When I was young, I smashed a lot of my early pots because they were crap. In your twenties, you’ve got all that energy, and it’s wild and uncontrolled; in your thirties, you corral it somehow; then in your forties you make the money out of it, and in your fifties, you’re suddenly confronted with being secure. And you’ve got your reputation and you suddenly think, “Well, I could just churn out this work.”

BE I want it to keep me alive, actually, I don’t want to be the person keeping it alive.

GP That’s a lovely thought. I was thinking about Henry Darger the other day. Do you know him?

BE Yeah. Fifteen thousand pictures, they found, when he died?

GP Yes, he never lived to see his work selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars but it gave him a rich life. And I thought, “Wow, nobody even knew he did it, pretty much.” You look at his paintings, and he’s obviously got some art-historical knowledge, he’s not completely innocent. But I don’t think any outsider art is completely isolated.

BE I always had the impression it was probably a totally hermetic, personal thing for him. Like someone generating their own pornography; they don’t particularly want to show it to anyone else. Another very interesting area of outsider art now is drawn pornography. God, there’s some amazing things going on. They’re using semi-real images, but they’re just extending the bits they want more of, you know – or much further than that. I’ve started collecting them.

GP Careful! Speaking as a pervert myself, what the internet did was tell you that you weren’t alone. And it was shocking. When I was young, when I was about ten years old, I used to have this fantasy, which used to turn me on greatly, of being in a body cast – lying in hospital, motionless, unable to move. And then when the internet came along, one day I just thought, “I wonder,” and then I just googled “plaster casts” and like – eugh! There’s websites called things like Cast Your Enthusiasm. It’s an offshoot of bondage.

BE It’s an offshoot of surrendering, as well – the same thing. You’re deliberately losing control.

GP And it’s kind of a loving thing, I think. It has to be. If you think about giving up to God, God is always there and is a parental presence, a parental projection. In bondage, there is always somewhere in the fantasy the loving but cruel parent figure.

BE The loving dominator.

GP Yes, we’re all gimps to a certain extent. Often when we look at perversions, you’re seeing an extreme, ritualised version of what everyone else has latent in them.

I see a lot of religious practices as offshoots of kinky sex. If you look at Catholicism and elements of Islam – well, I’ve got quite a thing about headscarves and I’m certainly not alone there. And I remember once, very early on in the age of the internet, I googled “headscarf fetish”, you know, and woohoo! It all comes out.

The fourth and last of Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 5 November (9am)