Grayson Perry: Playing to the Gallery

Artist Grayson Perry has released a book based on his BBC4 Reith Lecture series, Playing to the Gallery, which aims to demistify contemporary art and prove that “anybody can enjoy it.” An entertaining and insightful read, it also contains a new series of 30 witty drawings…

Artist Grayson Perry has released a book based on his BBC4 Reith Lecture series, Playing to the Gallery, which aims to demistify contemporary art and prove that “anybody can enjoy it.” An entertaining and light-hearted read, it also contains a new series of witty drawings…

Playing to the Gallery is divided into four chapters, with each addressing a basic question about the art world, from ‘What counts as art?’ to ‘How do you become a contemporary artist?’ Perry says the book aims to answer the basic questions that many people think of while in a gallery, but are often too embarrassed to ask.

“[People] might think they’re irrelevant … or that everybody already knows the answer. But I don’t think that’s true. The art world needs people to keep asking it questions, and thinking about those questions helps the enjoyment and understanding of art,” he writes.

The first section, Democracy Has Bad Taste, explains the process of validation that leads to an artist’s work being exhibited in major galleries, and the role of critics, curators, dealers, buyers and the public in shaping an artist’s reputation.

The next chapter, Beating the Bounds, considers how to determine what is and isn’t art: “We’re in a state where anything goes. But there are still boundaries about what can and cannot be art; the limits are just softer and fuzzier,” explains Perry. He presents a series of pointers which can be used to test whether something is really art, from who it’s made by and the context in which it is shown, to what he calls “the handbag and hipster test.”

“Quite often you can’t tell if something is a work of art apart from the fact that people are standing around and looking at it. If there are lots of people with beards and glasses and single-speed bikes, or oligarchs’ wives with great big handbags looking a bit perturbed and puzzled by what they’re staring at, then it’s probably art,” he says.

In Nice Rebellion, Welcome In! Perry considers whether art is still capable of shocking us, arguing that while it can still be inventive and surprising, contemporary art is incapable of shocking in the same way as Roy Lichtenstein’s graphic paintings or Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. “Anything can be art now … the idea of an artwork falling outside the boundaries of what art can be isn’t going to happen anymore,” he says.

The final chapter outlines the process of becoming a contemporary artist, and includes Perry’s reflections on experimenting with pottery aged nine, deciding to become an artist aged 16 and studying at Portsmouth Polytechnic.

While he admits that going to art school is (in most cases) unlikely to lead to a life of riches, Perry also makes a strong case for doing so. “Of course people can become artists without going to art college – but it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to make a career as an artist if you haven’t gone to college,” he says, praising art schools for offering a valuable refuge where students are encouraged to experiment, fail and learn from their mistakes.

The book is littered with personal anecdotes and contains some wise advice for aspiring artists – Perry encourages them to take any opportunity that comes along, and not be deterred or embark on a radical change of direction if their early work is compared to someone else’s. “Originality takes time. Carving out a career takes time,” he adds.

Perry also pokes fun at the pretensions of the art world and contradictions within it, from the unecessary complexity of “International Art English” often used to describe pieces, to the growing commodification of the art world, despite its continued desire to be seen as rebellious and firmly anti-establishment.

Playing to the Gallery is an accessible, enjoyable read for anyone who is keen to learn more about art but perhaps feels a little intimidated by the subject. It’s also a fond reflection on 30 years of working in the industry – for all his jokes, Perry says the book is “in some ways, a love letter to the art world.”

“If I have been teasing (bullying it) it is because I know the art world can take it, in fact it encourages it. None of my jibes stop the great art being awesomely beautiful,” he writes.

Playing to the Gallery is published on September 4 by Particular Books and costs £14.99. To order a copy click here.

  • Looks like a fantastic read. I’d like a copy. I couldn’t see a price anywhere. Will it be out of the reach of struggling artists?

  • Insightful, irascible and playfully cynical! Just what the lay person needs… good to see Grayson really engaging that unique wit of his.

  • Glyn Thompson

    In a recent review of Grayson’s Perry’s ‘Playing to the Gallery’ Nicholas Lezard quotes Grayson Perry’s observation that “had it not been put in a gallery” Duchamp’s urinal “would not have been art, ” and “if you see it” (the “original,” presumably) “in a gallery today it’s actually a replica, hand crafted by a potter.” Unfortunately for Mr Perry, the facts are as follows. Firstly, “Duchamp’s” urinal was never exhibited, in a gallery, or anywhere else, meaning that, according to Mr Perry’s ‘reasoning,’ it wasn’t art. Secondly, two of the fourteen replicas, some of which are on display in galleries around the world, were manufactured items sourced, (in the first case) from a flea market in Paris, in 1950, and the second from a public toilet in Stockholm, in 1963. Since these were manufactured industrially they were not hand made, as a potter such as Mr Perry might be expected to know. The remaining twelve were all made in 1964 by a Roman manufacturer. But none were replicas in the normal sense of the word, since they all deviate in significant detail from the original. The original, not submitted by Duchamp, as he told his sister at the time, appears in the iconic photograph taken by Alfred Stieglitz on 13 April 1917. As was the practice in 1917, this item was assembled by craft methods, by craftsmen, working for the Trenton Potteries Company, Trenton, New Jersey. This confirms other evidence that proves that Duchamp could not have been responsible for its submission to the Independents in 1917. That other evidence includes a surviving example of the urinal that Stieglitz photographed still attached to a wall in a building the United States. The only accurate account of the history of ‘Duchamp’s’ urinal is related is my own slim volume, titled Duchamp’s Urinal? The Facts behind the Facade (Wild Pansy Press, 2015.)