Playing to the Gallery is the published and polished version of Grayson Perry’s Reith lectures. Whilst the BBC Radio 4 talks are widely acclaimed in the media, Perry is, to some extent, a dividing figure. The Turner prize winner has been the go-to presenter of Channel 4 art programmes for several years, a highly exposed and irreverent middleman between notions of the gallery and the general British public.
As an artist that takes familiar craft forms and processes and uses them for subversive contemporary narratives, his widely appealing work and affable yet pithy commentary make him perfect for working within “telly values”, as he calls them. Yet, despite being a “lovable character” he wishes for his art, and art as a whole, to be taken seriously. This is an unusual polarity for the mainstream media that favours defined roles and values, and not the world of art in general.
This jarring of art and mainstream culture is touched upon in many ways, although not in a personal sense, in “Democracy Has Bad Taste’, the first chapter of four in this approachable guide to engaging with the gallery. He covers a myriad of issues such as the financial need for footfall, the curator’s need to push taste, the self-conscious nature of making art, where quality consensus comes from, and the cost and purchase of art. “Beating the Bounds” is another typically irreverent chapter on what qualifies as art and how, whilst “Nice Rebellion! Welcome in!” covers the art world’s contradictions, the difference between shock and rebellion, and the movements and pluralist nature of art today.
There are no clear-cut answers given to the contradictory values or prevailing questions that the public often have when it comes to viewing and evaluating art – really, there are none to give. Instead Perry discusses each topic in a roundabout fashion, in a way that more fascinated than critical of the internal processes of the gallery and art, and that encourages others to embrace its follies and contradictions with a pinch of salt and humour.
For all of Perry’s gentle teasing of the idiosyncrasies of the art world, he is equally challenging of the values the public prescribe to “good art”. For each issue touched upon, its potential roots are briefly discussed; for example, how beauty comes from familiarity, and that we like to be challenged, yet not too much.
All this is covered in an easy, meandering written style, laden with personal anecdotes and observations that make it an entertaining read, and dotted with Perry’s arch illustrations. One shows Jackson Pollock peeing into Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace and hitting his painting instead, his urine stream illustrated with a flower-shaped brush in Photoshop. These drawings punctuate the deeper concepts that are covered, such as the nature of memory, quality and use. The book reads as a condensed, more whimsical form of Sarah Thorton’s Seven Days in the Art World, illuminating the roles of art world professionals and the often-unknown aspects of their work.
Ultimately this is a book meant for and best suited to the unseasoned gallery goer, the friend or relative we all know that tries to approach art the way they might approach an algebraic equation. Yet at the same time this is a fun, light read for an arts professional to reacquaint themselves with the wider issues of art’s sitting in the “real world” and contemporary culture, and be reminded that certain questions are not as moot as originally thought.