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Reviews

Playing to the Gallery: Helping contemporary art in its struggle to be understood

Meryl Doney

'It's easy to feel insecure around art and its appreciation, as though we cannot enjoy certain artworks if we don't have a lot of academic and historical knowledge,' Grayson Perry writes, 'but, if there's one message that I want you to take away it's that anybody can enjoy art and anybody can have a life in the arts - even me!' He continues, in his signature, self-deprecating way, 'For even I, an Essex transvestite potter, have been let in by the art-world mafia.' So he sets out to demystify, to answer key questions and to encourage his readers to get involved. 'The art world offers a nice life.' he says. 'Come in!' Though he is quick to add that art is not easy and doesn't necessarily pay.

The book is an entertaining read. It is also beautifully produced - enlivened throughout with Perry's witty, illustrations.

Reading Perry is rather like having a chat with your best, gossipy friend, who has promised to give you the low down. He is funny, waspish, and by turns cynical and enthusiastic. After 30 years in the art world, and with considerable success - he won the Turner Prize in 2003 and has had major solo exhibitions all over the world - he has enough confidence not to care too much about spilling the beans on the way in which the contemporary, western art world operates.

The book is a development of his 2013 BBC Reith Lectures, the most popular since the series began. The arts, and particularly the visual arts, have enjoyed an unprecedented revival of popular interest in this country (Tate Modern is the second most visited tourist destination and the sixth most popular museum in the world).

Perry's approach is to tackle basic questions - even those that we are too afraid to ask for fear of seeming philistine - on our behalf. But despite his promise to answer these questions in a straightforward way, he brings a considerable amount of complexity to his answers.

In his first chapter, he tackles ideas of quality in art - who decides what is good and bad, whose opinion counts - and does it matter? These are not easy questions to answer in a postmodern environment. Perry mentions his first foray into performance art in his second year at art school. His tutor's verdict: 'It was entertaining, but I'm not sure it was art.'

He discusses some of the methods of validation of the past, and includes a telling comment about the criterion of 'beauty'. "If you use that kind of word in the art market,' he says, 'be careful. There will be a sucking of teeth and a mournful shaking of heads because their hero artist, Marcel Duchamp (he of the urinal fame), said 'aesthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided.'

He goes on to describe the intricacies of what he describes as the 'chorus of validation' for an artist or a work of art. Once this was a closed circle of peers, serious critics, collectors and dealers. To these can now be added museums, commissioners and curators (the popes of art), the media and the public. Each adds a layer of patina that builds an artist's reputation. But, he admits, there is no empirical measure of quality.

Another chapter takes its title from church practice, Beating the Bounds, and considers how we determine what is and isn't art in an age in which boundaries have been eroded. Perry traces this question through art history and ends with Duchamp (again), who famously declared that anything could be art. However, he himself admits to a slightly guilty attachment to traditional disciplines such as drawing, painting and sculpture.

Later in the book Perry talks about an art project which helps troubled children make art. He says, 'it must give them a sense of empowerment, that in a small way they have begun to change the world. Because, of course, art's most important role is to make meaning.' But Perry, disappointingly, does not provide a deeper exploration of how art became a carrier of meaning. His historical survey did not delve sufficiently into the religious roots of art, from its beginning in cave painting, through votive figures and funerary paintings, to religious icons and illuminated sacred texts.

In his chapter, Nice Rebellion, Welcome In!, Perry explores what happens in a post-Duchampian world where art no longer has the capacity to shock. The law of diminishing returns has kicked in. He suggests irony becomes the only valid form of expression. He jokes, 'one of the most rebellious acts done by an artist recently was by Tracey Emin. She supported the Tories.' But he confesses, 'I have to protect myself against this. It's fine being terribly cynical and ironic when I'm out with my mates, but when I want to look at art, I want to have a sincere one-to-one experience with it because I am a serious artist.'

In the final chapter, I Found Myself in the Art World, with its dual meaning, Perry outlines his own journey to becoming a contemporary artist. He is insightful about its therapeutic value, and the profound experience of art college as a tolerant and accepting environment. He is also keen to emphasise the place of technique, and the degree of professionalism required of a working artist. Here, he drops his 'carefully crafted blade of cynicism', and becomes an encouraging mentor, keen to share the stimulation and pleasure he has derived from his work. By way of explanation of this joy - and surprisingly - he quotes Jennifer Yane, 'Art is spirituality in drag'.