Do I make myself Claire? Grayson Perry dissects the art world

In this illustrated handbook to contemporary art, Perry compares his once unfashionable pottery to the woman ordering a Babycham in a style bar and everyone suddenly wanting one.

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Playing to the Gallery
Grayson Perry
Particular Books, 144pp, £14.99

There’s a disarming playfulness about Grayson Perry’s new illustrated handbook to art. This is partly because it’s based on his 2013 Reith Lectures and so has the chatty readability of short stories written for radio. Perry’s were no ordinary Reith Lectures: informal, irreverent, amiable yet delivered as his transvestite alter ego, Claire, they were, like his art, a blend of Middle English cosiness and subversion. Yet what makes him truly subversive in the art world is not his cross-dressing or the risqué imagery on his vases but the “middlebrow” medium in which he works (pottery) and his popularity with the public – which is a big no-no.

From his opening lines referencing The Archers, it’s clear who Perry is speaking to: the slightly cultured but non-academic majority. The Radio 4 listener, the occasional visitor to Tate Modern, left cold by chilly white commercial galleries and their chillier assistants. The book often reads like a wonderful send-up of the self-help book: the reassurances and rallying cries of Allen Carr or Susan Jeffers applied to the tangled world of contemporary art. “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 writes.

Mirroring his four lectures, he divides the book into chapters concerned, in turn, with the quality of art, what counts as art, whether art is still capable of shocking, and how to become a contemporary artist. In the first he examines the discrepancy between what is considered good art by the art establishment and what the public enjoys – how do we tell when something is good-quality? Being popular and “good” often seem at odds with each other. A commercial gallery curator tells him that the hugely popular 2012 Hockney exhibition at the RA was “one of the worst shows she’d ever seen”.

He also tackles the thorny issue of aesthetics – how beauty has been a dirty word in art ever since Duchamp and his urinal. According to the art elite, he writes, “To judge a work on its aesthetic merit is to buy into some discredited, fusty hierarchy, tainted with racism, sexism, colonialism and class privilege.” But to the lay viewer, untroubled by post-structuralist theory, beauty is still a main concern. Then there’s the rise of “International Art English”, the art world’s management speak, seemingly created to scare the little people out of the gallery.

Perry goes on to explore art as an asset, whether monetary value is a sign of quality, and how the opinions of “artists, collectors, teachers, dealers, critics ... oh, and maybe even the public” form a “chorus of validation”. Often it’s more basic: a Sotheby’s dealer tells him that “red paintings will always sell best”. In the end, though the tastes of the public may vary from “the art-world tribe”, we’re willing to accept the convoluted system that got the work into the gallery.

Perry compares his own once unfashionable pottery to the woman ordering a Babycham in a style bar and everyone suddenly wanting one. It was a “wilfully conservative position” that was the only act of revolution left for him, in an era where anything goes in art – yet this, too, was eventually welcomed into the art firmament, cemented by his 2003 Turner Prize win. He pokes fun at the disparity between the worthy bandwagon politics of many artists and the reality of the capitalist art machine. “One of the most rebellious acts done by an artist recently was by Tracey Emin. She supported the Tories.”

As for how you can become a contemporary artist – can’t you just say you are one and start doing something? Perry (whose wife, Philippa, is a therapist) argues that central to the identity of pretty much every artist is some kind of trauma. There’s also the idea of self-mythologising. Like Beuys and his tale of being rescued by Tatars and wrapped in animal fat and felt – materials that became talismanic in his art – could a run-in with a tight PVC smock while being made to do pottery with the girls at school have “formed early pathways” for the young Grayson? 

In the end, you’ve still got to go to college: “Being a brilliant artist never having gone to art school seems weird and a little bit naive.” Perry delights in being a bit weird but also in celebrating the very normal, the slightly frumpy. It’s this sense for strangeness within conventionality that makes his art refreshing – and this book such a joy to read. 

The New Statesman will be hosting Grayson Perry in conversation with Miranda Sawyer on Monday 13 October at the Royal Institution, London W1
See our events page for further details and to book tickets

Thomas Calvocoressi is a sub editor at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article appears in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?