Published on November 18, 2013 | by Abi Ward & Niamh Coghlan


Perry explores the meaning of modern art

Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry gave the final Reith Lecture in The Platform Theatre in Central Saint Martins, King’s Cross [John Sturrock]

Grayson Perry took centre stage for 2013’s BBC Reith Lectures, delivering four interesting and engaging talks entitled Playing to the Gallery, on how “contemporary art is now part of mainstream life”.

The Turner prize and BAFTA award winner is no doubt a role model for the art industry, with his flamboyant style, accessible speaking and impressive success.

Perry has strong links to UAL; he is a governor and regularly attends functions run by the university; he is also “usually dressed by St. Martins students”.

Although he is one of UAL’s biggest advocates, does that mean we have to agree with his thoughts on contemporary art?

Bad art

The first lecture took place in the Tate Modern and was entitled Democracy Has Bad Taste: He broached the issue of recognising quality art, suggesting that the general public make art popular although their tastes may not be of good quality.

“All you need is enough of the right people to think it’s good and that’s all it takes,” he said before adding “anybody can enjoy art and anybody can have a life in art”.

Jennifer Ball, an MA Camberwell graduate, said: “There has to be intention and expression behind a piece to make it art.”

Current CSM Knitwear student Olivia Giles agreed: “I do like contemporary art but I think it’s coming towards the end of its shelf life. I think some can be good, if it’s intelligently and properly backed up with reason.

“I wasn’t a fan of Tracey Emin’s My Bed. Shock factor wise, I think contemporary is just a bit too ‘pushing’. Art needs to have a really good and intelligent back-up for it to be art.”

David Dibosa, an MA course director at Chelsea, agrees modern art has reached saturation point and so its teaching has changed. “Academics no longer ask ‘can this be art?’ but rather ‘by what means does this become art?’,” he said.

Contemporary art

Beating the Bounds, the second of Perry’s lectures, took place at St Georges Hall in Liverpool, and in it he set out to give us guidelines on the boundaries between ‘art’ and ‘anything’.

The current debate on contemporary art often surrounds the question of what can be considered art. Perry sees an arrogance in calling anything art but admits that since the 60s, anything goes. Acknowledging that many are involved in art because it is a £43bn-a-year industry, he also laid out comical but useful rules for those who are in it for art’s sake.

From asking if art has to be seen in the context of a gallery, to the slightly more abstract tests such as leaving your art in a dumpster to see if anyone wanders by and thinks ‘Why that art is in a bin?’, Perry set out some useful and whimsical guidelines.

“The more broad-minded and the more exposed to experience, the more difficult it is to be shocked.” – David Dibosa

But ultimately his boundaries are not set by “what art can be, but where, who or why,” according to him. Quality, much like art, seems to be a grey area, with everything being subjective and personal.

CSM BA Fine Art student Jordan said: “It’s kind of a Duchampian thing, ‘anything can be art’. Anything can be art but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good art, a question of quality comes in to play there, but then what is quality? By what do you define quality art? It’s very much personal opinion as to what the limits are I think that varies with many different people.”

It seems what is not art to one person may be art to another, so therefore everything is art and we have to allow a difference of opinions on this because isn’t that the ultimate purpose of art, to evoke different emotions and spark debate?

Recent LCC graduate Morgana Edwards said: “Grayson Perry mentioned in his recent Reith lecture series that craft is often looked down on in the art world, as he is a potter himself. I think he was completely right; I would love to see the opening of a ‘snob-free gallery’.” Edwards would like to see art for all where the question of ‘is it art?’ remains personal and not a rule.

Shocking the masses

Perry’s third lecture Nice Rebellion: Welcome In was broadcast from Derry in Northern Ireland and saw Perry explore “the modern relationship between society and art,” says Sue Lawley, who interviewed Perry throughout the lecture series.

Perry talked about capitalism and Karl Marx, examining the position of avant-garde in contemporary culture and exploring whether art can still be shocking. He said: “When I started at art college, that idea of revolution and change and rebellion was almost the DNA of art.”

ALN asked students and staff if they think art is still capable of shocking us. Julia Parks, a CSM BA Fine Art student, explains the 1975 ‘Art Must Be Beautiful’ performance by Marina Abramovic, who repeatedly pulls a brush through her hair and says “art must be beautiful, artists must be beautiful”, shocked her, after seeing it for the first time last year. “It’s uncomfortable to watch her pulling her hair which is clearly painful whilst not acknowledging the pain, but rather repeating a verse over and over whilst looking into the camera directly.”

As an artist, Grayson Perry is best known as a ceramicist [flickr: Marc Wathieu]

However, David Dibosa, MA Course Director, argues: “Shock has more to do with us than it has to do with art… the more broad-minded and the more exposed to experience, the more difficult it is to be shocked.”

Some still look for a shock and have felt cheated when there is none. Perry argues the art world is “pretty un-shockable”. “I wanted that experience, I wanted that shock. I’ve never really had it,” said Perry.


The final Reith lecture I Found Myself in the Art World took place at CSM, and it was there that Perry explored the experience of becoming an artist, the time he knew he wanted to be an artist and the importance of art in his life.

In connection with this lecture, ALN asked staff and students at UAL what they think about Perry as an artist and how they think he performed in the Reith Lectures.

Beth Graham, a third-year textiles student from Chelsea, says: “He’s a very witty person. He’s not pretentious; he’s honest and comfortable about the industry he’s in. He made good points in the lectures. He made it accessible for those who don’t know a lot about art and made people who are in art and design, question their work.”

But are we losing traditional skills, because of advances in technology and the internet? Dr Nicky Ryan, Course Leader BA Design Cultures at LCC, says: “No I think that art is not separate from the rest of the world and responds, like other disciplines, to the cycles of fashion and technological change. What is interesting is that at the same time as new ways of making are investigated and assimilated by artists, so traditional skills are re-visited, re-imagined and re-purposed.”

Julia Parks says: “Digital art bypasses a lot of traditional techniques and is seen as ‘less’ hands on because you are not handling a roll of plastic, you are dealing with pixels on a computer screen.”

“However, there are still a lot of skills needed to perfect a digital image; colours, paper, retouching would all need to be considered, so although maybe less hands on, this is still a form of time and labour.

“After listening to some of Grayson Perry’s lectures I think he focuses on the importance of the skill of making within an art work. I think he sometimes doesn’t think about considering practices which may be very group based or do not have a tangible outcome.”

Beth Graham adds: “Traditional skills are less common in a mass-produced way, but the designer still needs these skills, there will always be a demand. People want handmade, they will just have to pay for it.”

LCC graduate Morgana Edwards agrees with Graham. “Where is the skill in making a chair by pushing a button? I appreciate something much more if I know it has been produced by hand. I feel more of a connection with the artist or crafter, it makes the piece more special somehow.”

Grayson Perry with presenter Sue Lawley  [John Sturrock]

Playing to the gallery

Perry was the first artist to give the Reith Lectures, and has encouraged much thought and debate on both art and the artist’s place in contemporary culture. “I’ve called this series of lectures Playing to the Gallery and not, you may note, Sucking up to an Academic Elite,” Perry said, in his first lecture.

His lively attitude and his love for his work made the lectures accessible to a wide audience and they have been well received at UAL. Traditional skills may not be as commonplace as they once were, but it is hard to imagine them disappearing entirely.

Art will continue to grow and develop and boundaries will continue to be pushed, just as they have been in the past.

All of Grayson Perry’s lectures are available to listen to on the BBC Radio 4 website.

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