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Grayson Perry: “We are living through a moment of shock”

The award-winning artist on race, humour and art in a time of crisis.

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The small talk is no longer small. “How are you?” I ask Grayson Perry. There’s a silence at the other end of the phone. “That’s such a loaded question these days, isn’t it?” I can hear the worry in his voice. “I don’t think anyone has ever experienced anything like this before. It’s like being in a sci-fi movie,” he says.

The last time he and I spoke was at the Royal Academy, at the end of February. Perry had just been awarded the prestigious Erasmus Prize, which has been bestowed annually since 1958 by the Praemium  Erasmianum Foundation in the Netherlands. Named after the 16th-century humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus, the prize – worth 150,000 euros – is a distinction for those who have made an exceptional contribution to culture or scholarship in the areas of the humanities, the social sciences and the arts. The most recent British winner was  AS Byatt, in 2016; previous winners have ranged from Marc Chagall and Oskar Kokoschka to Václav Havel, Simon Wiesenthal and Mary Robinson.

But the ceremony on 27 February – at which Perry appeared as his transvestite alter ego Claire, in hot-pink latex and with a handbag shaped like a chicken – seems a world away. At the time, his delight in receiving the prize was plain, not least because of his connection to the Netherlands; his first major show, “Guerrilla Tactics”, was at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2002. “That felt like a huge step,” he told me after the announcement. “That was my first proper catalogue, and that show also came to the Barbican, so it was sort of a big moment for me.” But now, in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, he’s anxious. “What I worry about,” he says to me now, “is that everything, certainly in my world, feels a little bit irrelevant at the moment.”

It seems strange to find myself reassuring him down the line; I teach creative writing at Goldsmiths and engaging with my students and their work over the past couple of weeks has been one of the most hopeful and helpful things I’ve done. Social media is full of people looking to turn to art (of whatever kind) for both distraction and inspiration. Surely now’s the time for making?

“Yeah, you’re right,” he says. “I mean, I have inner resources to make meaning of any situation that I find myself in, so when it’s percolated…” he trails off briefly. “I think we are in this moment of shock. It will take a while for us, individually and socially, to process that. I find myself going through all sorts of feelings about it, from depression to anger: it’s like a grieving process, almost. It’s just bizarre, it’s just totally bizarre.” And yet it’s very like Perry to pick himself up and dust himself off: not long after our phone call ends it’s announced that he will teach art classes on television, part of Channel 4’s programming for a nation isolated at home.

Who better? When he won the Turner Prize in 2003 for his controversial painted vases – the beginning of his journey from obscure artist to living national treasure – he said that he had “dabbled” in ceramics while at art college in Portsmouth; he went to pottery evening classics, picked up the basics, and on he went. “I love learning,” he tells me. “I always learn on the job. If there’s one hobby” – he laughs – “there’s a Freudian slip! If there’s one habit I have, it’s that I get excited by something and I immediately plunge into it and start working with it, then I learn as I’m doing it. So I’m quite inept. I’m learning new things even now for my next projects, and yeah, I wing it. My great overall skill is spontaneity and winging it!” If there’s anyone able to convince us we can all be artists, my money’s on Perry.

Born into a working-class family in Chelmsford, Essex, in 1960, Perry’s upbringing was tumultuous, thanks to his parents’ divorce and a violent stepfather. Encouraged by an art teacher, he completed an art foundation course after he finished school, then left to study for a BA in fine art at Portsmouth Polytechnic in the early Eighties. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Perry has carved out a remarkable niche for himself, moving between the rarefied world of high art and popular television series examining thorny subjects such as class and masculinity with a winning combination of open-mindedness, kindness and good humour.

Fame and acclaim have followed. He gave the Reith Lectures in 2013; he has moved into live stage shows, too. After the Turner Prize came the Visual Arts Award, one of the South Bank Sky Arts Awards, for his terrific 2011-12 show “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman” at the British Museum; he was appointed CBE in the 2013 Birthday Honours; and he was, of course, guest editor of this magazine in 2014. Now comes the Erasmus Prize, a notable feather in his cap.

“I have a knack for winning prizes; it must be something I’ve done!” he says after the ceremony, with his characteristic barking laugh. This laugh, I’ve always thought, is one of the chief weapons in Perry’s arsenal. There is an irresistible, irrepressible warmth about it; the most outrageous statements, followed by this laugh, become unthreatening. And a laugh doesn’t mean he’s not serious. The Erasmus Prize, Perry goes on to say, “feels like a validation of something that has crept up on me over the years, which is that my career is about making difficult ideas accessible to people, and that kind of bubbling-under campaign, in all my work, of trying to make the highbrow world that I operate in intelligible to the guy on the sofa, to the lady on the sofa back at home”.

That gift of laughter, his willingness to make complicated ideas broadly intelligible and indeed entertaining: that’s the Perry USP. But it’s not an uncomplicated one, for him. “I still think that there’s a veiled  insult in the word ‘entertainment’,” he says. “‘Decorative’ is another one that I encounter. But as someone who uses humour a lot in their work, I would argue that in the pantheon of human culture, humour should be higher than a lot of what’s considered ‘profound’. We have this idea that seriousness is of higher value. But surely there is more human pleasure and delight in time spent with humour than with pondering the great philosophical ideas,” he says.

I don’t disagree – and he’s pleased when I remind him that the very first British winner of the Erasmus Prize was none other than Charlie Chaplin. “You know, if people ask me who my favourite artists are, I usually say comedians, because I think that they live and die in the moment. They have to be fresh, they have to be relevant: they are often the most brilliantly spontaneous people. An artist can dine out on one half-baked pseudo-philosophical idea for the rest of their career, whereas a comedian, they’ve got to be funny continually: new, new, new!” That barking laugh comes again.

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Perry’s television projects play a huge role in this. His 2017 post-Brexit documentary Divided Britain – in which he asked Leavers and Remainers to contribute ideas for two enormous pots, each representing their ideals and aims for the country – was one of the most sensible and nuanced responses to the crisis. I remark on his ability to talk across this cultural divide: a rare skill, these days. “A huge influence on my work has been psychotherapy,” he says, “which, of course, is a sort of kind of ritualised, non-judgemental conversation.” Perry is married to Philippa Perry, psychotherapist and author; her most recent book is The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did). The couple have a grown-up daughter, Flo. “Of course, I’m aware of my own prejudices all the time, but I also take great delight in skewering the assumptions and biases of all sides. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing, and I think often in the cultured and educated world I operate in, there are a lot of blind spots that need pointing out to people.”

It’s that awareness of his own prejudices, and willingness to consider them, that makes Perry so unusual. It’s clearly genuine, not something put on for the television cameras. When we speak on the phone, we discuss his latest TV documentary, Grayson Perry’s Big American Road Trip. It was originally due to be screened in the autumn, but coronavirus has meant a delay. I’ve seen the first episode, which finds Perry in Atlanta, Georgia, talking to African Americans about race in his characteristically open and engaged way. No question is off-limits, in Perry’s view, no discussion too difficult. “I came away from that with a very optimistic and positive vibe,” he says to me. “It’s not that hard to have those conversations. They’re waiting to be had. All you’ve got to do is go in there with no guilt.”

All well and good, perhaps. But you are English, I say to him. You are outside the system in which Americans live; you are not only English, you are Grayson Perry, outsider artist, arriving on a psychedelic Harley-Davidson, completely separated from these people’s lives. It’s easy for you to say that it’s simple to ask these questions. He doesn’t resist my pushback at all. He disarms me with acceptance. “No, totally,” he says.  “I agree with you 100 per cent. I am an outsider and therefore it was not loaded for me to ask those questions. So that’s interesting: why does my Englishness exempt me from that, to a certain extent? If I had been an American white person, why would it have been a more loaded conversation? Because, literally, I’d have had skin in the game.”

There’s a sense, talking to Perry, that he’s really listening to you. This is rare enough. Perry will listen to everyone. “Obama said, when he railed against the cancel culture recently, ‘People who you are fighting may love their kids.’” He dislikes the demonisation of opposition, and tells me about interviewing Alan Dershowitz, the famous – or infamous – American lawyer who has defended Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein. “Dershowitz said, ‘People have a list of 20 things, and if you only agree with 19 of them, you’re a Nazi.’”

Now, however, all those arguments seem cast in a somewhat different light. I ask Perry what gives him hope in a globe beset by a pandemic. A brief pause from the voluble Perry. “Well, I’m looking out the window at the sunshine. Summer will come, the world will turn and, actually, Greta Thunberg is probably rubbing her hands together at all this, because it’s really working in her favour. There’s an upside, in that way. I think one of the interesting things about this whole situation is that it will make people think about the big questions. What is important? What, really, do they need? What, really, do they want to do? Life isn’t a rehearsal, and I think we will all have a kind of existential moment. I think that is good.” Certainly,  I discover, I feel hopeful talking to Perry; as we speak I look out at the blue sky outside my window. There are no airplane contrails in the sky, my London street is quiet.

“I mean, Terry Waite was on the news the other day, talking about his four years in solitary confinement,” Perry continues. “He said, ‘You just live it a day at a time and live for the little things, the little pleasures.’ So maybe it’ll make people sort of – I don’t know, less grabby about certain things, or stop them worrying about whether their eyebrows are the right shape or whatever. We’ll see.” 

“Grayson Perry’s Big American Road Trip” will air this later this year on Channel 4

Erica Wagner is New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her most recent book is Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge.

This article appears in the 03 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special