Performance before content – Eric Coombes is disappointed…

…by the frivolity and lack of ambition and academic rigour in the 2014 Reith Lectures. 97w" sizes="(max-width: 1181px) 100vw, 1181px" />Immediately after his predictably rapturous greeting at the first performance, Grayson Perry raised the question of why he was asked to give this year’s Reith Lectures.

Well, for the first time in their sixty-six years, they were to be given by a “visual artist”. Could one imagine the google_ad_slot = "7160667483"; BBC not to have chosen a winner of, or at least nominee for, the Turner Prize? Gormley having withdrawn a couple of years ago, how many remotely entertainable candidates lay in that small heap of the capriciously favoured? “Professor” Tracey Emin?  Damien Hirst? Even the BBC might have balked at the near-catatonic inarticulacy of a Martin Creed. But Perry vacuously claimed that his selection was explained by his being “a practising artist” – which, in reality, was not even a sufficient condition of eligibility.

This limitation of the field of candidates was not, of course, mentioned. Does inadvertency, naïvety or cheek account for his drawing our attention to another factor a few minutes later, when he said “… anybody can have a life in the arts ­– even me! An Essex transvestite potter … the mafia has even let me in”?  As he proclaimed this, dressed and painted in a flamboyant caricature of femininity, Perry basked in the sycophantic admiration of that “mafia”, including such luminaries as Nicholas Serota. In a video clip, we glimpse the Lord Patten, laughing google_ad_width = 970; with respectful indulgence. Was Perry, brazenly, knowingly but deniably, mocking the ideological conformism of his audience? Far from erecting an obstacle to advancement, his ostentation of social and sexual deviance augmented his value for an establishment google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; delighted

to advertise the orthodoxy of its ideological commitment to “inclusiveness”. He is surely far too intelligent not to understand this.

This is not to say that he was or is acting out a pretence. I have no reason to suppose that he exaggerates his compulsion to indulge in cross-dressing, either for the purpose of publicity, or to exploit the politically correct fashion that inverts the cruelty towards deviance often prevailing in the past. There is neither


reason nor need to question his own account of his idiosyncrasies. But a pretence that matters very much lay in the BBC’s affecting to suppose a series of

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pantomime acts to be the /* xin2 */ vehicle of serious thought. There src="//"> is no surprise in the corporation’s colluding with that dispiriting regime of compulsory frivolity, which everywhere imposes itself. But the Reith Lectures have had a special symbolic significance in upholding the BBC’s claim to “enrich the intellectual and cultural life of the nation”,
despite the tinyness of their contribution to its total output. They google_ad_height = 90; constitute a significant test of the corporation’s commitment to its responsibilities. Previous lecturers have been a somewhat mixed
bunch, and, as well as very eminent thinkers, the list includes some whom the criterion of intellectual integrity might have excluded. And one wonders about obvious absences, such as Isaiah Berlin or Ernst Gombrich, whether they were ever invited. Nevertheless, there seems to have been, hitherto, a serious effort to recruit serious thinkers – even if, in some cases, their seriousness might be questionable. There has, of course, been a relaxation of tone in recent years, the talks being given before live audiences and sweetened by the familiarity of their compère, Sue Lawley. But
their presentation for the first time this year as pantomime suggests that the assertion of the high-flown sentiments in the foregoing quotation is the bluster of

The background to this pantomime is the dominating cult of celebrity, which now draws everything into its moral ambit, where the very notion of an argument’s requiring an attention span longer than a five-year old’s becomes an elitist affront

to the general public. With its huge resources, the BBC has not only the duty, but also

we can adequately define a corresponding word, or precisely determine

the boundary of a category, is fallacious. A distinguished philosopher suggested that it should be dubbed “Socrates’ fallacy”. With much of human life, especially in the arts, it is the central areas that matter: the boundaries are often indeterminable, precisely because their


determination is unimportant.

There is a large philosophical literature on these issues, only some of which


is difficult. But the foregoing points are very simple; and although

they might not occur spontaneously to every educated person, they would be encountered in
the course of a modest dip into that literature, which is enjoined – one might have supposed – by the responsibility of maintaining the intellectual standing of the Reith Lectures. But Perry is not an educated person. I hope that this is not interpreted as a sneer, for I have a good deal of sympathy with

in the chaos of fraudulence which has engulfed “higher education”
in the visual arts.

And they betray not in content, but in form, the destructive effect on humane discourse of the crass utilitarianism destroying us, which can understand only linear explanations, in which everything is reduced to something other than itself – something simpler and grosser.  In

his supposed tour of art’s boundaries, Perry considered not what art is, but only which “art” is most promoted, sold

or otherwise rewarded, or what is, for any reason, accepted as art. src="//"> (And if this is held to be a false distinction, then that needs to be argued.) He was, perhaps, not so much the fraudster in this ridiculous pantomime of pretence, as the contentedly defrauded – the victim of what we laughingly

​ call “higher education” and google_ad_slot = "8637400688"; of the BBC’s irresponsible frivolity.

Eric Coombes

The Jackdaw, 2014