Grayson Perry reflects on contemporary art, discussing its evolution and final purpose in a work claiming that anybody can have a life in the arts – Playing to the Gallery. Helping contemporary art in its struggle to be understood

Grayson Perry, Playing to the Gallery. Helping contemporary art in its struggle to be understood

Published 2014 by Particular Books (Penguin), 136p

I decided to read Playing to the Gallery hoping to find an answer to a common situation when I walk in a contemporary art museum, I wander around and I realize that some of the pieces I have just seen have no message for me. Is that embarrassing? Is there a subtle message that I should be ashamed of my ignorance? Or is it just my personal selection between good and bad art?

Grayson Perry. Photograph Richard Ansett BBC
Grayson Perry. Photograph Richard Ansett, BBC

It’s easy to feel insecure around art and its appreciation as though we cannot enjoy certain artworks if we don’t have a lot of academic and historical knowledge. But if there’s one message that I want you to take away it’s that anybody can enjoy art and anybody can have a life in the arts – even me! For even I, an Essex transvestite potter, have been let in by the art-world mafia.

says Perry at the beginning of his book. Known for his extremely detailed pottery and for his cross-dressing, Perry, one of the most influential personalities in the British contemporary culture, discusses the aesthetic aspect of art, quoting Proust that said we tend to see beauty only when we’re looking through an ornate gold frame. The meaning is we have a predefined idea of beauty and we filter art using not only our personal values and expectations but also accepting external influence:

What he meant [Proust] was that our idea of what is beautiful is entirely conditioned: things we regard as beautiful do not possess some innate quality of beauty, we have just become used to regarding something as beautiful through exposure and reinforcement… monetary value is not what makes an artwork important of course but it often bumps all other meanings because people are easily impressed by huge sums of money. Much hoo-ha can be raised when a drawing  – not even a painting – of Munch’s Scream goes for $120 million.

Collectors and wealthy people influence art and the life of artists and art that embraces consumerism is often very successful but not everything qualifies as art. In a calm, friendly tone yet sometimes ironic, Perry points out that when art becomes very famous it stops being art.

If you go and see Mona Lisa, it’s like seeing a celebrity. People just want to take their photograph in front of it. I can hardly see it as art. And of course the other thing that stops art almost seeming like art is when you just look at it and think, ‘Oh my God, that’s worth $250 million.

There are also many allusions to Duchamp’s urinal which hadn’t been displayed in a gallery wouldn’t have become a landmark of the 20th century. Modern art is contradictory and one of its purposes is to shock audience. Unfortunately, Percy says, art has been associated with shock more than with beauty lately and sometimes it only leads to amateurism.

shit art

Good art should engage the audience to fill some missing gaps and make this audience respond emotionally. Art that is not seen by people is not validated and it cannot exist outside an art-historical context. The cultural and public institutions depend financially on sponsors, which sometimes leads to conflicting interests, and technology also dictates artistic trends but there will always be artists that can see things other people don’t see.

Perhaps the most shocking tactic that’s left to artists these days is sincerity. And the shocks in the work are not formal but political or social.

Percy ends his book in an honest manner, confessing about his childhood and suggesting that most artists find inspiration in their own traumas, using art as a tool to enrich their lives and the world they live in.

The metaphor that best describes what it’s like for my practice as an artist is that of a refuge, a place inside my head where I can go on my own and process the world and its complexities. It’s an inner shed in which I can lose myself.


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