Wednesday 23 October 2013


When Grayson Perry’s Reith lectures were being trailed I thought we were going to get the lowdown on the slippery subject of evaluating and defining art in the present day. You know, get some answers to questions like “How to tell ‘good‘ art from ‘bad’, and “What is art?”. 
What’s more we were to be getting them  from an insider. Someone who is lauded by the establishment, whose work is undoubtedly considered by “them” to be ‘good’ and ‘art’.

Instead, he pussyfooted around, telling us that the arbiters of ‘value’ or ‘quality’ were gallery owners, collectors and, well, Charles Saatchi.

I  definitely detected a touch of bitterness in there. Grayson Perry’s success places him in a unique position; he can express cynicism about the art establishment, unlike  less successful artists and wannabes whose cynicism would come across as the jealousy of the excluded, or the public, whose bafflement and cynicism would be - is - attributed to ignorance.

He seems resentful about the fact that things like ‘craft’ and ‘skill’ are ‘outwith’ the definition of art. They are something else, in a separate category; no longer proper fine art.  Grayson Perry, as a ceramicist, has surmounted that obstacle by integrating a conceptual element within his pots in the form of decoration with sociological associations. Mere decoration wouldn’t do, as ‘decorative’ is a pejorative in the art world, but sociological (or do I mean social) commentary makes it  kosher.  Here’s a caption to one of his pots from the Saatchi Gallery website:
Perry’s urns are rendered with an incomprehensible master-craft: their surfaces richly textured from designs marked into the clay, followed by intricately complicated glazing and photo-transfer techniques. Perry makes ceramic pots, hand-stitched quilts, and outrageous dress designs, creating a cosmopolitan folk-art.”
This urn is entitled “Saint Claire 37 wanks accross Northern Spain” complete with spelling mistake. 
Art? Craft? Cheeky? Outrageous?   

Saint Claire 37 wanks accross Northern Spain

I’d wager that his ‘dressing up’ has given credence to his work. “Being outrageous” ought to have been included in the list of tests he produced for us in his second episode: “Boundaries”, or “Can art be anything we like?”

The one thing Grayson seemed certain about was that his alter ego ‘Claire’ was NOT art. Only an artist can “artify” or “de-art” a piece of work, and Grayson deClared Claire “Not”.  
He  mused upon this concept with the Tilda Swinton story. (Cornelia Parker’s “Tilda Swinton asleep” exhibit was ‘art’ but Tilda Swinton’s own asleep exhibit (herself) was not.)

Sue Lawley seemed to think Claire was art, but who is she to say? What if, say Charles Saatchi, determiner par excellence, decided otherwise?
What if Cornelia Parker strode in, over-rode Grayson Perry’s judgment and offered “Claire” to the world as her art?  Unlikely I know. (For that matter who, one may wonder, decides who is ‘enough of an artist’ to deem things art/not art? In the QA session the idea was taken to its logical conclusion. One day everyone will be an artist, creating artworks for an audience of one.)

Let’s test whether Claire is art using Grayson’s principles: Is Claire Art?

Is it in a gallery?
It might be.
Is it ‘lame’ as in a copy of something or a boring version of something else? 
Yes and no.
Is it made by an artist? 
Is it folk art, aboriginal, a photograph, a limited edition? 
Well, yes and no.
Are other people (with handbags etc) looking at it? 
Is there a queue? 
Yes, I’m sure.
Would anyone notice if If it was on a rubbish dump? 
I guess so.

So despite what Grayson Perry says, Claire by his own definition IS art.

I know that was stupid. The whole point is, why try to define art at all, when we’ve already decided that by being ‘whatever anyone wants it to be’ the whole exercise is irrelevant because the term ‘art’ has more or less disappeared up its own fundament. 

The thing that stuck in my mind was the fact that Grayson kept saying he was ‘old fashioned’. Almost apologetically. Guilty m’lud, of being covertly traditionalist. I think he likes painting, (decorative) respects craftsmanship, and probably values skill. These factors are a major feature of his own work, but they’re not the qualities for which he’s achieved acclaim! In fact he’s achieved acclaim in spite of them! 

No wonder he’s cynical. Does Claire’s pantomime dame presence conceal, wizard of oz-like, the embarrassing fact that behind the curtain lies a traditionalist who is producing old fashioned craft.  Oh noes!

Or, one could see the invention of alter ego Claire as an outlet for feelings of guilt and confusion in the same way that James Thurber invented the fish with hysterical ears. Maybe she’s his way of keeping sane. A way of keeping sane which outwardly looks insane.  Enigmatic and conceptual.

James Thurber; hysterical ears
When art stopped being figurative it became much harder for the expert and impossible for the layman to evaluate. Although the abstract qualities in figurative art are a vital ingredient in differentiating ‘good’ from ‘bad’, they were difficult to define with clarity or precision. 
Lecturers at art colleges would analyse a painting in terms of ‘lines’ and ‘balance’, and the golden section, but somehow it all seemed as slippery a business as nailing the precise definition of ‘art‘ as it is in the here and now. 

An interesting programme on BBC Four last night about Australian art reminded me that abstract painting has been confusing people for over fifty years. The same old questions have been puzzled over inconclusively while certainties wax and wane with the passage of time. Painting and sculpture are sidelined, rediscovered, disparaged and reinvented. With some exceptions representational painters and sculptors are not considered truly part of the art establishment.  But it’s temporary. One day they’ll be back.

Grayson Perry is certainly an entertainer. His Johnny Ball-like delivery is full of sforzandos and accelerandos, and the boundary gimmick with the whip was pure art-ertainment. But so far he hasn’t delivered the enlightenment I was hoping for. My own fault I know. How could I have been so stupid.

1 comment:

  1. It was certainly entertaining, with lots of good jokes and memorable anecdotes. I didn't feel much wiser by the end of it either though.

    I still don't know how to take contemporary conceptual art, and Grayson's cheerful fence-sitting didn't really help much.

    My most recent experience of this sort of thing was visiting Glasgow's Museum of Modern Art along with my less-than-impressed family.

    The exhibit that stood out for me was one that looked like an open umbrella. For all world it seemed just like the sort of colourful striped umbrella you can buy in a shop - a fine, sturdy-looking specimen of umbrellahood that could stand up to a strong, Autumn wind.

    It could perhaps have been a hand-made umbrella made to look exactly like a mass-produced umbrella, or it could have been - in the original spirit of Duchamp - just some mass-produced umbrella which the artist bought in a shop. Either way, it looked just like an umbrella.

    The disconcerting thing was that - especially as it was the artwork nearest the entrance - It looked as if it COULD have been an actual umbrella that some museum visitor had left behind - perhaps someone who had just come in out of the Glasgow rain, opened up their umbrella, and left it to dry in the main exhibition room.

    As it was still raining outside, some thieving type who was in dire need of an umbrella, could have come in and taken it, thinking it was just an ordinary, non-artistic umbrella - just like the group of schoolboys in Grayson's lecture who went to an exhibition of contemporary art and found an installation which included what looked like a pile of sweets and then started eating it, because they really were sweets.

    A Grayson Perry umbrella might be interesting.


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