Elitist critics talk rubbish, says top artist

Pots and kettles? Grayson Perry with one of his famous illustrated ceramics © Getty Images

How does the art we see in galleries get chosen? What makes it ‘good’ and who decides? The provocative and outspoken Grayson Perry believes much art criticism is ‘impenetrable guff’.

The critic who gave the artist Grayson Perry his favourite bad review began the article: ‘I wish I had a hammer.’ As a reaction to an exhibition of the pottery with which Perry made his name, this seems rather violent. But Perry found it funny.

This month, the thoughtful and outspoken Perry has been asked by the BBC to give a series of lectures, known as the Reith Lectures, about what makes good art. So far, what he has said is typically amusing and lively – Perry is almost as famous for wearing flamboyant frocks and playing at being his alter ego, a girl called Claire, as he is for his award-winning artistic output. But his point is serious: who decides on what makes it into art galleries, or even what can be called art at all? Who should decide?

Not necessarily the critics, says Perry. These professional art experts are, he argues, in league with an elite group of global gallery owners, curators and commercial auction houses. Together, these people turn the creative output of some artists into ‘an asset class’ while the efforts of others are dismissed. By whipping up enthusiasm for their favoured artists, they inflate the prices of the works in which they trade and exclude the rest of us from what he calls an ‘impenetrable’ conversation.

Perry says he is using his lectures to ‘wage war’ on this elitism. For much of modern history artists have challenged the accepted truths of society and rebelled against the dominant systems of belief. Now, he implies, they are part of a new system of commerce and snobbery. A subculture that was once unorthodox and daring has become boring and what he damningly calls ‘trendy’.

Marcel Duchamp famously said that in the future an artist would be able to just point at something and declare that it was art. Perry, who uses traditional crafts like pottery, embroidery and tapestry in his work, jokes provocatively that he would like the reverse power: to point at some art and declare it to be nothing of the kind.

Past, present, future

He may not seem like a traditionalist, with his enthusiastic and colourful cross-dressing, his penchant for motorbikes, and for drawing swear-words onto this artworks. But Perry wants to re-examine what art has become in our era, and reassert what it can uniquely do. His ideals are a world away from the shock tactics and disruptions of modern art’s rebellious pioneers, but also hostile to the gallery bigwigs.

Perry claims that art is still the best place for experimentation, for playing with the ways that an individual reacts to society and then makes something creative from that reaction. But as they digest his declaration of war, will his fellow potters and painters think Perry is looking to the past or the future?

You Decide

  1. Why does Perry think a lot of art talk is ‘guff’?
  2. What is art? Something that you treasure? Or something that delights or shocks?

Activities

  1. Research some art shows and exhibitions on display near your school and plan a visit.
  2. ‘The shark has become an asset class.’ What does Grayson Perry mean here? Can you explain in a short piece of writing – or in a drawing!

Some People Say...

“Art is dead! Long live technology!”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t like art.
Are you sure? You may just be proving one of this artist’s points: perhaps what you enjoy and what the world labels art are two different things. Next time you visit a gallery or exhibition, or look at a favourite painting on a postcard or poster, ask yourself the questions that Perry suggests: why is it art, and who says so? Maybe there are other creative things that should be included in the definition of art?
Well, I prefer other things to ‘official’ art.
Perry says that’s a fine place to start. And his definition of experimentation as art has a lot of crossover into other areas of amazing human achievement. Science, for example, is very creative, and often, as with art, the practitioners don’t necessarily know what they will end up with!

Word Watch

Reith lectures
Every year, the BBC invites someone to give a series of lectures on an interesting aspect of culture, which it broadcasts worldwide. The lectures are named after the first director general of the UK’s publicly-funded broadcasting corporation, Lord Reith.
Curators
The people who put on exhibitions and look after the permanent collections at galleries and museums around the world. They have great power in deciding which art is deemed to be ‘important’.
Asset class
A group of financial investments that all behave in the same way, have the same legal status and are subject to the same regulations. Here, Perry is being sarcastic, suggesting that art has become simply a way to make money when it should be so much more.
Marcel Duchamp
The French artist (1887-1968) is credited with starting the conceptual art revolution by putting a urinal in a gallery and declaring it to be an art work. After that, such objects presented as art have become commonplace, known as ‘ready-mades’.

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