As I write that mixture of shock, anger and frankly depressive disquiet prevails. In an extraordinary week for world affairs – I’m thinking Paris and Nigeria here – my own daft orbit has swung wildly between healthy titillation and Appalled of Pembs.
Before the irreligious scumbags from Boko Haram and (who knows? Al Qhaeda?) did their work in Africa and North West Europe, I’d been enjoying that simple pleasure of reading something upful. Despite being conflicted about that book’s place or relevance in a) my head and b) the Universe right now, I intend to go on abard it anyway. Because whilst this book is not remotely about the means by which we oppose radical Islam, it does contain truths about making meaning which I believe powerfully relevant – always – and maybe particularly when homo sapiens lurches back towards the swamp.
Please listen while I say this: there are rich and beautiful things (that I am happy to call invincible) which can represent us humans with a kind of defiant grace. We need these things – let’s use these things.
The book is Grayson Perry – Playing to the Gallery.
Grayson Perry is a funny old bloke. Maybe that’s not an appropriate start – not for a kosher look at yer average book on Art Theory. Except that this book, unsurprisingly, is like him, Grayson, an engaging mixture of colourful parries and friendly fends around what’s real or profound or material in life and in contemporary art. It’s an antidote to cynicism, full of good-natured one-liners aimed at the various intellectual stratospheres we space-hop through together. It’s therefore not (al-ley-luyah!) any of the following; arid, dull or impenetrably dense. In fact there’s a kind of juvenile (and I think I do mean that in a good way) zeal running through; playful, yes, but defiant about the integrity of most contemporary artists and the nobility of that calling.
So the essence of ‘Playing to the Gallery’ is lightly campaigning, de-mystifying, educational veering-to-populist rather than cerebral. The cover spiel makes plain that this baby is certainly not
sucking up to an Academic Elite.
No. It ain’t. ‘Playing to the Gallery’ is anti-pomp and anti cobblers. It’s full of friendly exclamation marks (marked down, I know, by the intelligentsia) and arguments deflowered where possible of their museum-speak to welcome in – indeed to really encourage in – the or’nary human.
Some facts. This book is lifted from or sculpted out of the Reith Lectures that Perry gave in 2013. If you listen to the first of them on the BBC Radio Four website then once you’ve have cringed your way through Sue Lawley’s prolonged itemisation of his clobber, you will be immediately immersed in a whole lot of love for the man. There are cheers and gales of laughter. He rips it up as well as reveals, or proffers insights. It’s a hoot.
The book isn’t a word-for-word re-run of those gorgeously garrulous lectures but that’s absolutely where it’s centred. Containing chapters named for the four performances at the lectern, ideas fleshed out a little or trimmed of the live banter. The book could be either a souvenir for those who loved the lectures or a touchstone (perhaps) independently.
Perry immediately (in a prelude called How much?!) de-Ivory Towers the scene by relating the epiphanic tale of how The Archers revealed to him the profound integration of contemporary art into general life. But, typically, this is the springboard for a declaration of faith –
If there’s one message 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.
Sure, he’s saying, the art world may seem to want to exclude us normal folks, to sieve us out via the intimidating glamour or bewildering language or obscure purpose of its protagonists but it’s possible – and indeed necessary and nourishing – to get the fuck in there(!)
Democracy Has Bad Taste concerns that thorny-delicious debate over judgements on quality –
what are the criteria… and who tells us it’s good?
I suspect elite level academics may disagree but it is my contention that Perry is no mug. He appreciates well here, the conditioning and the self-consciousness of the novice viewer and the uppity, sometimes excluding brilliance of the Art Circle.
(Nowadays) To judge a work on its aesthetic merit is to buy into some discredited, fusty, hierarchy tainted with sexism, racism, colonialism and class privilege. It’s loaded, this idea of beauty, because where does our idea of beauty come from?
We are thus rallied towards rather profound questions on validity and – dare we say it? – truth.
In Beating the Bounds, Marcel’s Duchamp’s position at the very birthplace of much of our angst is considered. The magnificent subversion-of-all-things that was Duchamp’s urinal – his declaration that anything was art that an artist chose to be so – is revisited repeatedly to ask questions about where modern(ist?) notions of legitimacy have come to us from… and where they have travelled. Ultimately, Perry’s wonderfully circular story of how Duchamp’s urinal was effectively lost (and its significance almost wasted) before a potter was commissioned to re-make one from grainy photographs is one of the highlights of the book.
In this second chapter our quirky pal Grayson cracks the whip – and I do mean that – so we have a bitoffalarf as we are bundled round the problems or undiscovered joys of the parish. Perry offers further ways in to the arguments around where art is at… and how we might recognise it.
Refreshingly, there are few conclusions anywhere in this mini-tome; the artist does suggest, however – in Nice Rebellion, Welcome In! (Chapter Three) – that
I don’t believe there is an avant-garde anymore…
He goes on
But if we are at the final state of art then I’d like to end on a positive note and quote the philosopher of art Arthur C Danto. He said ‘If the age of manifestos had a political parallel in ethnic cleansing, then in the age of pluralism we have a model of tolerant multi-culturalism.’
Whoa. The Age of Pluralism – multi-culturalism. I can see in the art world this may be or this may seem how things are moving. Wow.
This may be an appropriate moment for me to close the book and gaze wistfully into the middle distance. Then say something unwisely woolly and positive. So, being positive, I will.
I believe in Grayson Perry, the Essex trannie/good bloke/artist. I rate his work more now than before – because I am understanding better. I have always shared his conviction – expressed in these lectures – that we the audience might have to put a little work into appreciating art. That there is value in that effort, in part because what is revealed includes the life-affirming notion that most artists are genuine, committed people looking to share meanings with us and, who knows maybe offer leadership, sustenance or hope in a mad, mad world.
I for one hold up my fist, my torch, my pencil for that aspiration against the horrors of un-love, of intolerance and extreme bigotry.