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National Treasure?

20 December 2013

Writing in The Guardian recently, historian Lisa Jardine voiced concerns that Grayson Perry’s edge as an artist might have been blunted – or at least masked – by his ‘national treasure’ status, as recently sealed by his BBC Reith lectures. His creative vision, she argued, is one that ‘acknowledges the inescapable liaison between desire and disappointment, the inevitable failure of reality to fulfil our overheated consumerism-enhanced dreams’.

In fact, that very distinction between searing honesty and ‘national treasure’ cosiness sums up Perry’s identity as an artist. His art and persona have always been a strange blend of cutting wit and camp whimsy, provocation and populism. Take his love of drag, which raised many chuckles from the Reith audiences as Sue Lawley itemised his outfits for Radio 4 listeners. The effect of Perry’s ‘Claire’ persona is that of camp humour – brazen yet fluffily benign. He would be equally at home making a guest appearance on Coronation Street as at a louche cabaret.

But in the event, it was the august Reith lectures that served as his platform, with four speeches about art and the art world collectively titled ‘Playing to the Gallery’. There is no doubt that Perry had carefully judged his audiences. His faux-naïve questions (how do we tell if something is good? who dictates taste?) gave the apple cart of the art world a rakish rattle, while taking care not to upset it too much.

Perry identified a ‘chorus of validation’ which shapes the contemporary art scene, a nebulous cabal of curators, collectors, dealers and members of the public that is ultimately ‘self-correcting to a certain extent’. Separating artistic wheat from chaff is a mysterious and under-scrutinised process, yet Perry’s apparent critique ended up as an endorsement. He mentioned a pot he once made titled The Happy Consensus, which contained a decorative litany of ‘50 names of collectors and galleries and exhibitions that I might be in’. This was bought by mega-collector Dakis Joannou, one of the influential 50. The ‘chorus of validation’ can indeed be happy, if self-regarding.

Perry subsequently ventured into more philosophical territory – what now defines ‘art’ (‘anything and everything’, was the essential answer) and what place does rebellion really have these days? Revolution in art, he posited, ‘is no longer a defining idea’, quoting Robert Hughes’ droll aperçu that ‘the avant-garde is now a period style.’ His final instalment took an autobiographical turn, discussing the personal cathartic motives that might lie behind one’s journey into the art world, the capacity for art to turn ‘terrible events into gold’.

As in Perry’s pots and tapestries, there was vein of populist conservatism running through these lectures – again part of their subversive appeal – which will have rubbed certain quarters of the art establishment up the wrong way. He managed to imply that ‘amateurism’ and ‘mucking about’ can too easily be the basis of art; and that ‘a boring version of something else’, lacking entertainment value, can equally fit the bill. Duchamp’s definition of art was, he suggested, ‘very intellectual’ (too intellectual?) – perhaps forgetting that it was also Duchamp who flatly proposed using a Rembrandt as an ironing board.

Perry’s questions were more stirring than any answers he sought to give, although the worst reticence came not from Perry but Nicholas Serota. As he sat in the audience of the first lecture – a high-spirited affair populated by the London art and media crowd – Serota was asked by Lawley: ‘are you aware that you are the most significant person in this cast of validators?’ He rebuffed her with an arch quip about his collection of Cliff Richard memorabilia.

In the end, it would be unfair to expect too much snideness or ‘biting the hand that feeds’ from a man who has done handsomely out of the art business. Perry managed to show that the art world is capricious and contradictory, abounding equally with ‘desire and disappointment’. Despite Jardine’s concerns, he has lost none of his realist edge. His attitude of mischievous candour – more than the fleeting or glib answers he proposed – gave the lectures value. His very desire to prick the art world’s unchallenged assumptions deserves praise. It doesn’t happen nearly enough.

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