Grayson Perry’s 2014 Reith Lectures – a missed opportunity

Patrick Cullen explains why Grayson Perry missed an opportunity by avoiding the important issues he

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claimed to be addressing.

Grayson Perry was a surprising choice to deliver the Reith Lectures given the list of senior academics, elder statesmen and those at

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the top of their profession preceding him in the job. One wondered why, when it came to contemporary art it was decided to break with tradition and hand the spotlight to one of its middle ranking practitioners with no track record as an intellectual heavyweight. But many enjoyed the change. Think of the Reith lectures
and people tend to think dry, dull and probably pompous to boot. With his pantomime outfit and, in the second talk, brandishing a whip, Perry was anything but boring. The jokes came thick and fast, the lectures were even called “Playing to the Gallery”. Perry may be no John Berger but he’s a lot smarter and more articulate than all those YBAs he is keen to distance himself from. What we lost was any sustained argument about the nature of contemporary art, what justifies it as art and why. More than anything Perry reminded me of a court jester, clever enough to make his audience laugh and to tease the powers that be with the odd dig, yet never forgetting that he is part of this modern day art circus which has

been very good to /* xin2 */ him. He acknowledged this google_ad_width = 970; at several points, in a humorous self– deprecating way, encouraging others to join this world that even allowed him, a transvestite potter, into its ranks. A classic court jester moment came in the second lecture (he was even wearing what Sue Lawley described as a jester’s hat). He teased Nicholas Serota (who
was in the audience) about the often expressed criticism that Serota’s personal tastes are determining to an excessive degree the nation’s purchases of contemporary

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art. “Impossible” said the Fool leaping to his King’s defence, he had been to Serota’s home and admired his extensive collection of Cliff Richard memorabilia. It was a swipe but a pretty gentle one.

Lecture 2 was supposed to be the one where Perry really addressed what art is and what it isn’t and especially the boundary lines between the two. Introducing it Sue Lawley said “Today’s lecture will explore what the boundaries of art are. Can it really be anything we like from a google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; pile of sweets to a soundscape?” This is difficult territory for any contemporary artist wanting to be seen as contemporary. Ever since Duchamp and his urinal the idea of trying to define art by putting boundaries round

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it has seemed increasingly old fashioned. Perry began by admitting that if you asked people in the art world to define art “there’d be a lot of eye rolling and sort of like – Oh God! – you know – Not that question again. Like it’s been answered … You know there’s a kind of complacent idea in the art world that anything can be art now… We’re in a state now where anything

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goes… But the thing is I think

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there are boundaries still about what can and cannot be art…”  I was beginning to warm to his theme. If the art world //--> complacently thinks anything can be art, but Grayson doesn’t agree, perhaps he was going to tell us what those essential qualities are that distinguish art from the merely banal and common place. He informed us that he wanted to establish the boundaries of art a bit like in mediaeval times people

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marked the territory of their parishes by a primitive process called “beating the bounds” (the title of this 2nd Reith Lecture). Hence the whip.

Just prior to listing what he saw as the boundaries beyond which things ceased to be art, he paused to imagine how “his friends in the art world” would laugh at him for wanting to establish the limits of art. “But,” parried Grayson rather

and ambivalence. On the contrary they tend to facilitate double clicking one’s way to instant relief in the form of a much needed bladder evacuation. Perhaps that’s why they’re not art. And perhaps that’s why

all those people who claim not to know much about art but who know what they like, would at least recognise when a guy like Duchamp was taking the piss.

Patrick Cullen

The Jackdaw, 2014