Grayson Perry’s 2014 Reith Lectures – a missed opportunity

Patrick Cullen explains why Grayson Perry missed an opportunity by avoiding the important issues he 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 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 him. He acknowledged this 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 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 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 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 goes… But the thing is I think 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 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 pathetically, “I want to know when to put my art goggles on. I want to know when – you know – when I’m going to look at something as if it’s art”. This was quite a confession. Only by knowing when to put his art goggles on would he be able to start looking at something “as if it’s art”. The idea that real art might just possibly have the power to announce itself as art because it moved you, took your breath away, was amazingly beautiful or wonderfully thought provoking was not considered. No, Grayson needs to know when to put on his art goggles or he’ll be unaware of what’s in front of him, rather like all those museum sheep who have no idea how to judge a painting unless someone is distracting them via headphones with a lot of facts to reassure them that what they are looking at is indeed important art. I don’t believe for a moment that Grayson Perry is so insecure about his responses to art, so perhaps it was just a cleverly timed piece of humility to allow the audience to identify with him, for in all probability many of them would have been part of “ the headphones brigade”. Now, brandishing that whip, he would tell them how to recognize this thing called art, which even he has difficulty spotting without some special goggles. “Afterwards,” he assured them to much laughter, “you might know when you’re looking at a work of art and not just at some old rubbish”. There would be nine boundary markers or tests to help them in this task.

Test number one: “Is it in a gallery or an art context?” LAUGHTER. Well, you had to laugh. It’s the equivalent of saying, a few decades ago perhaps, “if you’re not sure if it’s art, has it got a big gilt frame round it?” Or try this one: How do you know if someone is a criminal? Helpful test: are they in a prison? It might just have been an initial bit of farce before the more serious stuff, if so many of his other tests hadn’t turned out to be in a similar vein. Yes, statistically, pieces of visual art are quite likely to be found in art galleries – surprise, surprise – but this tells you nothing about what makes them art, or how to distinguish them from the things in art galleries that aren’t art.

Test number two: started off as “Is it a boring version of something else?” This might have led into whether art has to be original which would have been a serious line of inquiry, but he left off before he’d started on this one and it morphed into…

… Test number three: “Is it entertaining? If so it may not be art because art is a serious business.” Perry immediately mocks this test, telling us that it reminds him how the worst thing you can call an artwork is decorative – a bit of a leap that, but no doubt this is a jibe he must at some time have had to contend with himself, unfairly in my view. Then he says: “I think it’s a very noble thing to be decorative”. So we got a glimpse of Perry’s differences of opinion from the dominant art world views on what is proper art. Prejudices he has encountered as a mere potter being another one he touched upon. But these differences featured very little in this light-hearted tour of the contemporary art world’s boundaries. He pursued the idea that a sense of dullness and lack of pleasure, (he cites all those video installations with uncomfortable benches to sit on), might be a sign that we are looking at art. This clearly struck a humorous chord with his audience, but it was beginning to feel like a very unenlightening way of teaching us how to know if a piece of contemporary art merits that appellation. Was it all going to be jokes?

Test number four: “Is it made by an artist?” This is clearly of no use either since it begs the question of what an artist is. If an artist is defined as someone who makes art but we haven’t yet establish what art is, looking for artists means we’re just going round in circles. Perry offers no new definition of an artist to help us out. Reading between his lines it looks like artists are people that this cosy art world he delights in belonging to, recognizes as artists. These boundaries, far from revealing anything, were beginning to sound like the already established parish boundaries of the self same art world whose judgements about art we wanted Grayson to explain. But there were no explanations, just a series of markers (e.g. – it’s in the Serpentine Gallery, it’s rather dull and it’s by Cornelia Parker, a known artist, ergo it’s probably art).

Test number five: this boundary marker concerns the question: “Is  photography art?” If Perry had made a stab at a definition of art in the first place he might have been able to say whether a photograph could fit within it. But without ever nailing his colours to any mast he could only make more jokes; e.g. a photo might be art if the people in the photo aren’t smiling. Or: it might be art if it’s bigger than two metres and priced higher than five figures. Plenty of laughs but zero insight.

Test number six: “The limited edition test.” Another crack of Perry’s whip to indicate another boundary to this thing called art. He points out, as if we didn’t know, that if something is part of an endless edition, it loses some of its monetary value by virtue of the laws of supply and demand, and then goes on to declare that therefore “it’s giving away part of its qualification as art”. He draws this conclusion as if it were obvious and says no more on the subject. Actually it’s not at all clear why, because there is more than one of it, an object should be deemed any less a work of art. Less expensive probably, but why less a work of art? This could have been an interesting discussion and one which would have touched upon many things: the importance of uniqueness for the art world, the problem of multiples, the conflation of artistic and financial worth and the ways by which the latter is protected. The criteria lying behind Perry’s tests were turning out to be uncannily in tune with the vested interests of the contemporary art world. Since Duchamp the notion that anything can be art may well have won the day in theory, but limits and boundaries there must be in order to protect art’s monetary value. Duchamp himself, authorised a limited edition of his urinal (which was originally a standard mass produced one – and an important point about it, being that it was just that). Nearly five decades after the first urinal had been destroyed and when it had become a legendary (but, alas, unmarketable) landmark in the history of the avant-garde, Duchamp, agreed, in total contradiction to the spirit of the original, that ceramicists (i.e. potters Perry reminded us) should hand make an edition of “his” urinal, each of which he personally “validated” as art, whilst excluding all similar extant urinals. There are eleven “genuine” “Duchamp urinals”, each worth somewhere around a million quid, essentially because Duchamp waved his wand at them. (Think about the magical powers invoked here. How gullible the world to fall for such brazen sophistry!). The artificial limit placed on an edition of an art work is a classic case of how the art world establishes its “parish” boundaries for good old financial reasons. Perry probed this not one bit.

Test number seven: “Who’s looking at it and is there a queue?” More jokes about the kind of people who go to galleries and look at art. If there are a lot of people with beards and glasses and single speed bikes……etc. If so, and if there’s a queue (contemporary art being so popular) there might be some art involved. I laughed along with the audience for I’d long since given up gaining any insight into what the intrinsic qualities are that make something art.

Test number eight: “The rubbish dump test” Perry explains: “Throw it on a rubbish dump and if people walking by notice that it’s there and say “oh what’s that artwork doing on that rubbish dump?” it’s passed.” For a moment I thought he was on to something. May be, just may be, one defining quality of an artwork is its capacity to arrest you, make you stop in your tracks and gaze in wonder or surprise or even just puzzlement. But no, once again Perry undercut this possible signifier by another joke which got a big laugh: many good artworks would fail this test because the rubbish dump itself might be the art work.

This time I realised I wasn’t laughing too. It was too near the truth. Yes, it was now official, from no less an authority than the giver of the Reith Lectures: there is no way of distinguishing between art and rubbish, the very thing he had promised to enable us to do. So Perry in effect told us to forget the rubbish dump test, the only one so far I thought of any use. The really sad thing about all this was that so many people – in relation to any other field of enquiry, perfectly intelligent people – thought Perry’s lectures not just funny (they were that), but thought provoking and insightful too. Also sad was the fact that Perry can express views at odds with State Art orthodoxy, but apart from his words in praise of the decorative in art, he kept them to himself.

Test number nine: “The Computer Art Test” Grayson cracked his whip for the last time. As if knowing he’d really dodged the question with his suggestion that we drew a venn diagram of all his tests and where they met in the middle is pretty well guaranteed to be art, Grayson finally threw in a just about plausible definition of art from a friend of his called Charlie Gere. Gere says that you might be able to distinguish between a piece of web art and just an interesting website as follows: “You know it might be art when it has the grip of porn without the possibility of consummation or a happy ending” Perry then expanded on this: “In other words it’s all about frustrating our urgent need to double click our way to satisfaction whether in the form of a joke, an opinion, a fact, a sale, or indeed an onanistic experience, and to detain and suspend us in a state of frustration and ambivalence and to make us pause and think rather than simply react.”

Well, well! Here at last, in the final gasps of his lecture, was an attempt at a definition. It begs as many questions as it answers, but at least it’s a start. Had he begun any one of his four lectures with this provocative definition he might have moved on into an inquiry about the true nature of art and why, although quite a lot of things may be art (when manipulated creatively) most things, like urinals, are probably not. At least I’ve never met one that had the grip of pornography but which suspended me in a state of frustration 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