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Grayson Perry, one of the most popular and influential artists of our times, embodied his version of the new artist making meaning in our technological, fast, capitalist world. His ideals clearly break away from art as shock, or Ezra Pound’s “make it new”, taking pride from his popularity and finding his fundamental purpose in art: which is to find about who we are.
He walked through the LICA hall in platform heels, a big naff dress (stitched on this was a picture of a poorly drawn cat), bleached blonde hair and tons of make-up. In many ways I thought that this image visualised his complex identity; he looked in a way that catches attention but behind this, is a very serious thinker. He was open to discuss many intellectual ideas with the audience which was made up of art students and fans of his work.
When Professor Charlie Gere asked him to discuss his work Perry joked how he “teased with the art world”. This humour relates directly to his pottery. He is the first potter to win the Turner prize, reviving traditional, if outdated art, to comment on life in the present (see figure 2.) This ceramic is the first displayed at the British museum; it brings us into Perry’s aim as an artist which is essentially to ask: who are we? How do we react with art in our world?
In the discussion Perry quickly set the mood. The audience seemed engaged as he provided a somewhat Marxist outlook on the relation of art with life. He was aware of art’s social quality, directly engaging with identity politics that come from our socio-economic world.
However, he strongly declared: “I am an artist not a social worker” recalling some of his satirical work. This somewhat ambiguous statement leads to the question of what art can do in a society which values the “core” scientific and business studies. To which he (knowingly) provided his bold opinion on the “autistic” nature of art’s critics. His ambiguity and negative use of mental illness was critiqued by a people after the event. On the train I overheard a fine art student calling his language “high-brow” and at times “arrogant” and “stubborn.” In the final questions he was not always responsive or thoroughly addressing the question. Further, there was an inherent contradiction in this part of his character. Whilst discussing the middle class he was critical of the way money limits success remarking that these “sacred cows (should) be given the kick in”, although later in discussion with the audience he tells students that an artwork is successful if it is liked by a lot of people or the “right” ten people. Leaving us with a misleading answer of what actually makes an artwork successful and how it should engage as a product in society.
Despite this, Perry articulated clearly his own artistic process and difficulties he had faced. He addressed the students directly as he commented on the materiality of art as it was in a time of shift to a more digital age. The language he used to describe the tangibility of a painting had a resonance of loss in the technological work of now. He described how an unfinished art work can be uploaded to the web and “pinged” across the globe in a matter of seconds. This was also seen when he described the process of craftsmanship, literally moulding and creating pieces of art using clay or woodblocks which react back to the artists’ touch. He told us that material objects offer a close engagement in the way the unlimited choice of a computer does not. He even went as far as to describe the drop down tool box in computer programmes as graves in which you chose to click or to ignore.
Concerning his own success as an artist, he made it clear how important it was to ‘network’. He declared that he was lucky in the fact that he was “interesting with a glass in his hand”. Perry criticised recent Turner prize winners for not being active in this way, failing to make social connections once given the opportunity. Although some described this view as slightly arrogant, I thought it was a helpful note to current art students because of the opportunities that can arise through meeting new people interested in the arts. It is commonly said in these subjects that it is about ‘who you know’ and Perry directly urged students to go out and talk to others, thus wanting others to learn from his example.
In the final questions many topics of the conversation were raised, particularly concerning social issues and the current art world. One third year student asked Perry’s opinion about the male role in art education, why did he think it was less popular? There was some confusion in the way he worded the question and Perry did not respond very well to this. There was a short answer about the percentage of males who gain employment after an art degree, which he said, was less than somebody who would never go to university. To this Gere made a light hearted joke to all the male students in the audience who were obviously told something they didn’t want to hear. He then told us the percentage of female graduates to get work was statistically higher and I couldn’t help but think his reliance on statistics to answer such an important question was poor. After a question concerning the arts of today, Perry gave an interesting explanation of how times have changed. After the war period many working class people were urged into art education (it being free was obviously a huge help). He explained that this is why we see so many older working class artists in our current time. Then, with clear angst, talked about how the climate of the art world, since privatisation, will show a different, more “elite” or “upper class” outlook in the future.
Moreover the talk made you think. He discussed that his art, whether people like it or not, starts a conversation. When I have been to Grayson’s exhibitions in Liverpool, London or the current show at Temple Newsom, Leeds; I have always noticed the way people have an opinion, something to share with others in the room. This is important within art and something, which I think, makes Perry particularly successful. He is commenting upon the here and the now, and our attempt to make meaning in a world where it is becoming increasingly difficult to find definition.
There is a series now on BBC iPlayer called ‘Who are you’ where Perry explores the identity of many people in society and finally shows how he creates individual portraits.