Wednesday 16 October 2013

On Grayson Perry

The artist Grayson Perry is delivering the 2013 Reith Lectures, a series of radio talks that commemorates the stern and high-minded Director General of the BBC in the 1930s, Lord Reith. I listened to the first one yesterday.

Grayson is a likeable, accomplished and amusing speaker - informal, bright, eloquent and droll. His flamboyant transvestite alter ego is rather a tiresome distraction but that hardly matters on the radio. 

Anyway - the first lecture began with lots of gossipy insider-talk about the art world. The tone might best be described as 'debunking'. I particularly liked this extract (as it appeared in transcript in the Financial Times):

I did a bit of research myself and I think I have found the 21st-century version of the Venetian secret [the 19th century hoax that fooled Benjamin West, president of the Royal Academy] and it is a mathematical formula. What you do, you get a half-decent, non-offensive kind of idea, then you times it by the number of studio assistants, and then you divide it with an ambitious art dealer, and that equals the number of oligarchs and hedge fund managers in the world.

Nicely put. But elsewhere, if engagingly, Perry is only doing what everybody involved in public art has been doing for as long as I can remember. He sets out (with the best intentions) to "demystify" the subject (and the art world of curators and dealers and suchlike). Yet most contemporary art, and most curating, has been aggressively dedicated to this popularising agenda for as long as I can remember, or at least since the 1980s when the Victoria and Albert Museum branded itself as "an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached".

Demystification - making stuff more accessible - has been going on for so long (and to so little effect) that I'd like to call a moratorium.

What I'd like to see is a re-mystification of art. Not a move to obscurity and pretension but an end to the chirpy debunking and irreverent register that characterises most arts reporting and too much museum and gallery curating. I'd like to see a return to seriousness.

Kenneth Clarke set a high bar in his ground-breaking television series Civilisation - urbane, cultivated, judgemental and (needless to add) wholly assured in his value judgements (which are the only judgements of any value). His approach was high-minded and unashamedly (or unselfconsciously) elitist - though without a trace of condescension - and he made connoisseurs of us all.

Make it new, as Pound said. Make it strange. But what do we get?

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