Performance before content – Eric Coombes is disappointed…

…by the frivolity and lack of ambition and academic rigour in the

2014 Reith Lectures.

Immediately after his predictably rapturous greeting at the first performance,

they were to be given by a “visual artist”. Could one imagine the 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 Gormley having withdrawn a couple of years ago,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 google_ad_width = 970; artist” – which, in reality, was not even a sufficient condition of

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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 google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; 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 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 delighted to advertise the orthodoxy of its ideological commitment to “inclusiveness”.
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He is surely far too /* xin2 */ 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

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for the purpose of publicity, google_ad_slot = "6023194682"; or to exploit the politically correct fashion that inverts

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the cruelty towards deviance often prevailing in the google_ad_height = 90; 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 pantomime google_ad_width = 970; acts to be the vehicle of serious thought. There 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 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 src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> excluded. And one wonders about obvious absences, such google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; as Isaiah Berlin or Ernst Gombrich, whether they were ever google_ad_slot = "7160667483"; 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 pretence.

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 the capacity to resist this dominance.
The blame for the debacle of this year’s Reith Lectures therefore falls squarely
on the BBC and, of course, on the state-art establishment to which it complacently defers. Perry himself, like his largely fawning reviewers, was probably unaware of how far he was out of his intellectual depth.

What was said in the “lectures”?  Many matters

connected with the visual arts – practical, sociological, financial etc. – were raised, often autobiographically, and usually flippantly. Specific observations were sometimes shrewd, but never enlightening
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to the undeluded; and no path of consequentiality led from one to another.
Essentially,
there was no argument at all, although individual points of unconsummated discussion were half identified by confused gestures. And the failure to take the slightest trouble to get things right, would – or would not that long ago – have disgraced a sixth-former.

One illustration: In the first “lecture” he announced himself to be “very sceptical of the idea that you can find a kind of empirical way of judging quality, particularly in art”. How bizarre! Would we say of a sonnet by Shakespeare, or a painting by Turner, that it achieved “high quality”? Are these samples of a commodity? His “scepticism” amounts to doubting that there could be non-aesthetic criteria, readily and “empirically” applicable, by which to determine an aesthetic

judgement. Who exactly has ever held such an “idea”? The manifest impossibility of such criteria has standardly been taken as central to the philosophical discussion of aesthetic judgement. His confusion here exemplifies a characteristic inability of the uneducated to understand that there is a distinction between empirical and conceptual questions (a distinction that may not be easy to make in a particular case). To be “sceptical” about the existence of such criteria is a little like

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being /* xin-1 */ “sceptical” about the possibility that two plus two equals five. Since it is not the kind of thing about which further information might show us to be mistaken, it is idle to fuss about purported practical examples. Nevertheless, we should perhaps note that it would be difficult to imagine anything better chosen to illustrate his state of confusion, or his failure to get things right, than his main example of the supposed acceptance of such “empirical” criteria. This was the content of the “Venetian Secret”, a notorious hoax played on Royal Academicians in the late 18th century. But the “Venetian Secret” did not even purport

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to google_ad_height = 90; offer criteria of aesthetic judgement, being concerned only with the technique of painting.

To the extent that a unifying theme can be discerned, it was identified in the toe-curling words of the embarrassingly unembarrassable Sue Lawley, introducing the third “lecture”.  “So far we’ve tried to assess the nature of what art is”.  Oh dear.  What is

art?  A dauntingly big question one might think. Or possibly a small and unimportant question. If a genuine //--> question at all, it

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is a philosophical question, and the questionability of its genuineness might itself raise

but I think the boundaries are sociological, tribal, philosophical and maybe even financial.”  Well, can anything “be” art or not? What does that mean?  Does
one and the same thing become or cease

not notice himself making two crucial but eminently challengeable

Process Overview:

assumptions: first, that to ask what is art is equivalent to asking how to

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determine whether some object is a work of art; and secondly, that such a determination would be a matter of definition, or decision procedure, to establish the boundary of a category.  Those assumptions provided Perry with his title “Beating the Bounds” and hence with his pantomime prop, a riding crop, which he brandished at intervals to signify “beating” src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> at some supposedly significant “landmark” on the boundary of art.

This amused an easily amused audience; but it was hardly enlightening. First: the concept of art cannot properly be considered without some attention to other arts besides the visual, even if the latter is one’s main concern. Secondly, the concept of art is a mental capacity which we exercise in certain kinds of human activity: it is not primarily

a principle for categorizing objects in the world. The question of how objects are identified as works of art, if interesting at all, is interesting only if it

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throws light on that capacity – and
that cannot be simply presupposed. And thirdly, though widely assumed, the notion that we grasp a concept only if we can adequately
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define a corresponding word, or precisely determine the boundary of a category, is fallacious. A distinguished

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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