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, 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 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 Gormley having withdrawn a couple of years ago, how many remotely entertainable candidates lay in that small heap of the capriciously favoured?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 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”. 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 pantomime 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 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 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 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 being “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 to 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 is a philosophical question, and the questionability of its genuineness might itself raise philosophical questions, as could the question of whether, if genuine, it is big and grand or small but noisy.

Such big (or small) questions have, together with their gratuitously assumed burden of objects and practices, entered and colonized the world of state art, as if the philosophy of art – or rather, one part of it, eccentrically construed – were central to, or even constitutive of, the work of artists, qua artists. It is not obvious why competence in this subject should be conferred by the practice of art, nor why it should purport to feature as central to the education of art students, as if directly relevant to artistic practice; rather than arising, if arising at all, in a complementary area of study, established to enhance the humane benefits of that education. When that still happened, these matters were sometimes in the hands of the intellectually competent.

One consequence of the comprehensive destruction of our system of higher education in the visual arts, from which Perry emerged as a graduate, is a glut of people who deludedly suppose themselves competent in matters entirely beyond their intellectual scope. In the second “lecture” Perry asserted “anything can be art … 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 to be “art” according to whether it falls under the jurisdiction of one or other of this strange ragbag of disparate conceptual regimes? Or is this just a confused way of noticing the obvious point that what is accepted, valued or promoted may vary with circumstances or interests? In this “lecture”, Perry did not notice himself making two crucial but eminently challengeable assumptions: first, that to ask what is art is equivalent to asking how to 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” 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 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 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 him. To learn about his appalling childhood and abusive upbringing – recounted without self pity – is to admire him for defeating the power of conditions which deprived him of most of what we normally take to be needed for healthy mental growth. (I assume that the published account is essentially truthful.) Despite those squalid circumstances, he gained a place at one of the most successfully academic schools in the country, and, for a while, did very well. He is certainly not stupid.

But these “lectures” exhibit, in some respects, the limitations of an intelligent but previously uneducated first-year student: inability to sustain argument, or even to understand what it would mean, or the need, to do so; complete unawareness of important distinctions; and so on. They also betray that ignorance of one’s own ignorance which imprisons the minds of many beginning students and prevents their progress – an imprisonment from which, of its nature, it is hard to escape, since awareness of the need to escape is absent. It is, of course, impossible here to consider why much of alleged “higher education” not only fails to deal with this problem, but in many areas actually aggravates it – perhaps by continuing that practice of systematically flattering intellectual immaturity which, especially in the arts, appears to constitute a significant part of secondary schooling. The intellectual level of this year’s Reith Lectures surely reflects the diseducation Perry received 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. (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 of the BBC’s irresponsible frivolity.

Eric Coombes

The Jackdaw, 2014