Grayson Perry is known in the art world for his exhibitions of pots, tapestries and his alter ego Claire, who he uses to challenge assumptions about art, creativity, human experience and society. He first moved into the public eye in 2013 with his popularly acclaimed BBC4 Reith lectures. Delivered in typical Grayson style, done up to the nines, with outlandish hats, sequined eyes and a teddy bear called Mr Measles on his arm, they went down a storm, with audiences literally cheering. His book, Playing to the Gallery, based on these lectures, reveals why.
Grayson takes us on a personal journey. Using autobiography as analysis, he extrapolates from his own experience to wider generalisations on art. He explores basic questions such as what is “good” or “bad” art? What is the gallery? What is an artist? Written in an open and accessible way, shot through with humorous cartoons and full of titbits of information and amazing facts, the book casts a facetious eye on the art world.
He explains the process that leads to an artist’s work being exhibited in major galleries and the roles played by critics, curators, dealers, buyers and the public in shaping the artist’s reputation. He also looks at how the direction of the art world is affected by public (consumer) opinion: “increasingly the artist who can draw crowds gets a better seating in the pantheon”.
Raising questions of taste and art as “commodity”, he laughingly quotes a curator at auction house Southebys saying that “red paintings will always sell best, followed by white, blue, yellow, green and black”. How that can affect art practise is summed up nicely in Grayson’s favourite phrase, “You’ll never have a good career unless your art fits into the elevator of a New York apartment block.” He also has a pop at the intellectual art elite and how some writers have developed a particular “art language” to use in a “linguistic race” in an effort to prove how serious they are.
Yet running throughout this book is Grayson’s obvious love of art and, interestingly, the ordinary people who view it. He argues that the art world needs people to keep asking it questions, and that thinking about those questions helps enjoyment and understanding. “We might be bemused or even angered by the work, but with a few of the right tools we might find that we appreciate and understand it.”
For all his jokes, he says the book is “in some ways a love letter to the art world”. “If I have been teasing (bullying) it is because I know the art world can take it, in fact it encourages it. None of my best jibes stop the great art being awesomely beautiful.” Playing to the Gallery aims to demystify the institution and to encourage us to engage with it. If there is one message Perry wants us to take away, it is that anybody can enjoy art and anybody can have a life in the arts. This is a brilliant introduction and invitation to the world of art. Everyone should read it.