Reading About Contemporary Art: Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery

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“‘Imagine this. You know, big museum, big museum. They’ve offered you an exhibition and there’s a big room there – an open white room waiting for you to fill it. And in a year or two I’ve got to fill that with work and all the people are going to come and look at it, maybe thousands of people, and all the press are going to come and they’ll want to write about it and talk about it, and then I’ve got to sell it. And the reaction of certain people – well, my income depends on it. And maybe the income of several other people, assistants and people working at the gallery. And then on top of that, I’ve got to create it with the carefree joy of a child! Does that sound like pure fun?’ Art, it’s a serious business!”

That brilliant quote comes from Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery and is one of the many excellent observations on the role of the artist and art within society. The short book has been reworked from Perry’s rather legendary Reith Lectures which gave him the opportunity to dispel many of the myths and jargon of the contemporary art world as part of the BBC series.

In many ways Playing to the Gallery is easy reading for those that want an introduction into contemporary art or who have a certain distain towards the art world with astronomical prices attached to sharks in tanks. I was hoping that Perry’s book would go as far as being an introduction for even the most sceptic of people (I’m mostly thinking of my boyfriend here), it still at times falls into the trap of assuming the reader understands a basic understanding of art and contemporary art. In many ways that basic understanding is the biggest barrier in getting people into our galleries and talking about art, so its a shame to see it repeated here.

Where Perry does shine is his chapter entitled Breaking the Bounds which asks the question ‘what counts as art?’. A handy step by step questioning by Perry gives the reader a chance to dismantle the art. Questions such as ‘Is it in an gallery or an art context?’ or ‘Is it a boring version of something else?’ are coupled with tests like the ‘computer art test’ or the ‘handbag or hipster test’. All rather tongue-in-cheek – as is Perry’s way – help to reduce contemporary art down to something much more tangible.

Peppered throughout are Perry’s playful coloured images that help to further break down the big questions he is asking. Much of them reference other artworks such as this one of Duchamp’s urinal which even the novice art-goer could appreciate:

Playing to the Gallery Urinal

Perry’s candid humour often reveals the foolishness of the contemporary art world where torn paintings are sold for millions and everything from an unmade bed can land up in a gallery. Underneath this though Perry shows that for however much he can loathe some of the dynamics of the art world he can’t shy away from it and he sees the true value of art and artists. If he’s not knocking myths on the head about the lifestyle of artists he’s helping to demystify the role of the curator and art galleries within society. It’s no easy feat and whilst I think Perry, at times, falls back into the jargon I can’t help but to appreciate what he’s trying to achieve.

Art is for everyone but it is a select few who shape and define the perceived idea of who and who can’t ‘get it’.

Images are by Grayson Perry.