Playing to the Gallery – Grayson Perry

I was looking for some reading, something interesting and preferably short!  Grayson Perry has been introduced through this module and seeing his exhibition in Bristol in December 2017, so he seemed a natural choice as his writing is easy and accessible.  This book covers the approach to art, asking the questions: “What is art?” “Who decides what is art and what isn’t?” “Why is it ok to like some artists and not others?”

There is a section on photography that rang a bell with me.  How do you tell if a photograph is art? “In the 1990s you could tell it was art because no-one was smiling and they often had a stagey portentousness.” (p64) Now that we are flooded with images on all different platforms, it is even more difficult. Humourously he suggested “you could probably still just see if they are smiling.” In which case, it probably is not art.  In addition, if the photograph is huge then it probably is art.  It struck me as a fair assumption in these days where there are some enormous sized prints in exhibitions, but there are also some much smaller.  At the Tillmans exhibition for example, he placed one tiny 6×4 image next to one that filled most of the available wall.  Does that make it art too?

At a time when I have managed to visit more exhibitions than ever before, I am constantly questioning why a particular photographer is lauded as an artist when someone else who produces really good work is not.  It may be something to do with the context of the work that I have not been privilege to that makes a difference in connecting with the work.  Thomas Ruff left me non-plussed while I admired Tillmans and found his work interesting and varied.  I saw some beautiful photographs of the Syrian conflict that had pathos and humanity to them but thought that some of the more famous work on display in the Elton John collection were dull.  Maybe in the end it is all down to personal connection and whether we can see something to relate to in the images.

In another chapter he discusses technology and its effect on art.  Photography was a challenge to painting as it asked “What is art now that photography can do it?”. (p101)  This leads on to the use of technology to produce art and he has fully embraced technology to draw and produce some of his works, the tapestries in particular as it has enabled him to make things he would not have thought about or tried to make before it.  During the 1980s and 1990s the technology lead the art – he gives examples of art that were cutting edge at the time but now seem almost redundant.  As technology makes artists of us all (with cameras on phones that can film and make stills, drawing apps and so on), what becomes important is the approach of the artist, “the approach of the artist is more and more relevant in the age of creative capital.” (p103). However, in his conclusion he says that in fact technology in some ways has protected the art world because with the internet, people can look up work and then make an effort to go and see it. In fact it seems that, in the digital age, people are keener than ever to visit art galleries, to be in the presence of the actual unique object (and take a selfie in front of it, natch, to post on Twitter)”. (p134)  From the point of view of someone who lives in Devon where there are not the galleries and opportunities to see work, the internet has been invaluable.  But seeing something familiar close up and having the chance to examine it closely, to see the colours as they should be, the size it really is and the whole thing in front of you is still the best way to appreciate the work that goes into some of the pieces.

A great short book on art and how to view it without any pretentious waffle is refreshing, but I am biased as I like Perry and his approach.  He is engaging and talks in a way that I can understand.  My review is completely non-academic but the book made me think a lot more about what I am seeing.

Playing to the Gallery, Grayson Perry, 2014, Penguin Books (2016)