Radio: Reith Lectures

Issue section: 
(385)

Presented by Grayson Perry

Every year the BBC commission a public figure to deliver a series of lectures to be broadcast on Radio 4. This year they have commissioned the British artist Grayson Perry, famous for his ornate pottery and his transvestism. To date he has given two lectures, with two more to follow.

Perry is intelligent and endearing and asks big questions of art and the art market in a direct and simple way. He is not your regular aloof and earnest Reith Lecture academic. He seems to be one of us, or at least one of us, but done good with art. So far his two big questions are: What is art? And what makes it good?

Perry tells us that the criteria we use to judge art - financial, aesthetic, popular, historically significant - conflict with each other. That is why, for example, what is popular might not be beautiful. He also tells us that these criteria are determined largely by the art market. Buyers, curators, dealers, collectors, critics and audiences, all circle around the art pieces and the artists, trying to make them their own and make them and themselves look important. Last year the art market was estimated to be worth 43 billion GB.

Art in this context is judged and valued by what it is not, by its uniqueness, what makes it distinct as a luxury item from other luxury and non-luxury items, and also distinct from and judged against what has been deemed not-art. Artists are taught and told to be different.

However, talking from his own experience as an artist, Perry shows us how artists are predominantly consumer led, whether they like it or not. Modernist notions of art still loom large in the art world. In the modern age of now instantaneous mass communication and consumerism, mass production and reproduction, there are the dominant but vacuous notions that anything can become art and as Perry says, "Anyone can have a life in the arts."

So, if that is the case, what qualifies as art and who are the artists? Children make art. Billions of people take photos. We are all creative. But the art market dominates how we produce and consume what passes as art. Perry's art - like the art of so many other commercially successful and unsuccessful artists - is made exclusive and distinct from any progressive artistic or social movements. Artists and their art are valued by their supposed uniqueness and framed accordingly.

Perry has asked big questions of art and given us an insider view of the contemporary art world. But there are more questions to ask and even though Perry's thoughts are often safely idiosyncratic and anecdotal, I look forward to hearing his attempts to answer them.

The Reith Lectures is available at BBC online.