If you hate art-world show-offs, Grayson Perry, what's with the frocks?

A review of ‘Playing to the Gallery: Helping Contemporary Art in its Struggle to be Understood’, by Grayson Perry. Perry’s Reith Lectures asked pertinent questions but didn’t bother with serious answers

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

Playing to the Gallery: Helping Contemporary Art in its Struggle to be Understood Grayson Perry

Particular Books, pp.144, £14.99, ISBN: 9781846148576

At the time it was all too easy to get sucked in by the hype. In 2013, Grayson Perry was the first visual artist ever to give the Reith Lectures and — unlike so many of his dry, earnest predecessors — here was a speaker ready to fulfil all three Reithian aims: to inform, educate and entertain. (‘I still find commercial art galleries intimidating,’ he observed in the first lecture. ‘From the frighteningly chic gallery girls on the front desk to the reverential hush around arcane lumps of stuff inside.’)

Here also was a transvestite potter from Essex being welcomed to the heart of the British cultural establishment, a one-time outsider who’d made his name with pots depicting fetishism and bondage.

Greeted by critical acclaim, audience laughter throughout and feet-stamping appreciation at the end, the lectures were a four-part quest to explain the strange workings of the contemporary art world. They have now been tidied up — and complemented by a set of cartoon illustrations — for a book called Playing to the Gallery. Its publication allows us to assess, beyond the pithy observations, just how much depth there was to Perry’s discourse.

He certainly asks many pertinent questions — such as ‘what is good art?’, ‘who is the judge of that today?’ and ‘has art lost its ability to tell stories, mass-communicate and push boundaries, becoming instead an asset class, big lumpen loads of cash on walls?’

Perry is a likeable guide through slightly off-putting waters, a non-elitist who feels that art should be for everyone. He’s a convincing guide to boot, as someone who — en route to national treasure status, with a CBE and Royal Academicianship — has successfully navigated those waters over three decades.

At several points, I find his views entirely echoing my own. Particularly on the meteoric, none too welcome rise of curators, a species who serve as exegetes for the increasing amount of conceptual art produced nowadays. Simultaneous with this has been the rise of International Art English, the deliberately impenetrable language curators use (‘where “visual” becomes “visuality”, “global” becomes “globality”… and it all sounds a bit like inexpertly translated French’) in a bid to stress the faux-profundity of what they do.

Playing to the Gallery is full of interesting thoughts, but where Perry frustrates is his tendency to flit from one of them to another without analysis. Time after time, he chooses a wisecrack over wise counsel, appearing to be on the verge of making a telling point when he backs out and opts for a gag instead. For instance, when he suggests that art has lost its ability to shock any more, he rounds off the claim with: ‘The last truly dangerous thing — the only thing you won’t see in art today — is underarm hair.’

Perhaps the major surprise of this book, though, is that, for all the praise of Perry’s deft skewering of the art world, his views — deep down — are really rather traditional. He reveals himself in favour of a relatively narrow definition of what art is: namely, drawings, paintings and sculptures made by practitioners properly trained in their chosen technique.

Which, of course, is fine. There’s nothing wrong with conservatism. But it does cast our attention, troublingly, onto the proverbial elephant in the room. Namely, Perry’s cross-dressing. Just what purpose is served by his public appearances in the hair bows and frilly frocks? This he barely addresses — such that one begins to wonder, however unfairly, whether Perry himself is perhaps a self-publicist first and artist second. If so, is he not a beacon for the image-obsessed posturing in contemporary art that he so derides in Playing to the Gallery?

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Show comments
  • Ken

    Good point – why does he make such a fool of himself? But I like his pots and his tapestries – the man has talent and communicates (c.f Emin,Hirst etc).

  • Why does that nice Mr Perry have to go and spoil it all by wearing frocks? Jeez, the man is a bloomin’ transvestite! That is why he wears frocks. DUH! Now can we just stick to responding to what he actually says rather than to what he wears?

  • Kitty MLB

    ‘potss despictinng fetishism annd bondagee’
    Is tying upp garden peas and encouraginng them to climb poles noot the same
    thing. and gardeen stakes and green houses..don’t get me started.
    I hoppe he shaves is legs whenn wearring frocks.

  • Glyn Thompson

    In ‘Playing to the Gallery’ Grayson Perry chants the mantra that “had it not been put in a gallery” Duchamp’s urinal “would not have been art, ” and “if you see it” (the “original,” presumably) “in a gallery today it’s actually a replica, hand crafted by a potter.” Unfortunately for Mr Perry, the actual facts are as follows. Firstly, “Duchamp’s” urinal was never exhibited, in a gallery, or anywhere else, meaning that, according to Mr Perry’s ‘reasoning,’ it wasn’t art. This appears to give Mr Perry’s own practice a problem. Secondly, two of the fourteen replicas, some of which are on display in galleries around the world, were manufactured, and sourced, (in the first case) from a flea market in Paris, in 1950, and (in the second) from a public toilet in Stockholm, in 1963. Since these were manufactured industrially they were not hand made, as a potter such as Mr Perry might be assumed to know. The remaining twelve were all made in 1964 by a Roman manufacturer. But none were replicas in the normal sense of the word, since they all deviate in significant detail from the lost original, which appears in the iconic photograph taken by Alfred Stieglitz on 13 April 1917. As was the practice at the time, this item was assembled by craft methods, by craftsmen, working for the Trenton Potteries Company, Trenton, New Jersey, in 1917. This confirms other evidence that proves that Duchamp could not have been responsible for its submission to the Independents in 1917. This other evidence includes a surviving example of the urinal that Stieglitz photographed still attached to a wall in a building the United States. The only accurate account of the history of ‘Duchamp’s’ urinal is related in my own slim volume, titled Duchamp’s Urinal? The Facts behind the Facade (Wild Pansy Press, 2015.)