Grayson Perry — "Democracy has bad taste"

I've just listened to the first of Grayson Perry's four Reith Lectures delivered in 2013. From the BBC podcast it sounds as though the lecture was great fun for all involved and Perry made a number of important points while entertaining his audience.

Through the series Perry promises to give his hearers some "tools to understand and appreciate art" from the standpoint of a practitioner rather than a member of academe. He suggests that the art world is often a "closed circle" and believes instead that "anyone can have a career in, or enjoy, the arts."

In this first lecture—"Democracy has bad taste"—Perry raises three questions related to quality in art:

  1. How do we tell if something is good?
  2. Who tells us?
  3. Does it matter?

Some of the biggest challenges arise from conflicting criteria for quality and a perceived tension between popularity and quality. "Quality," then, often breaks down to what Perry suggests has become an "empirical measure of art": the market. And the market's assessment depends on a series of actors who "validate" the quality of art: artists themselves, critics, the media, the public, collectors and dealers. Above them all come the curators who decide which art if of "museum quality."

"Seriousness" can be another measure of the quality of art, but Perry sees a couple of problems with this approach. One is that modern artists have been far too self-conscious about producing "art" and have become captive to complex theory and "international art English" to justify their work. Another problem is that the category of "seriousness" is not helpful when trying to assess some activities, such as participatory art.

Perry ends his lecture by suggesting that perhaps art is good when "enough of the right people think it's good" and that "good taste works within a tribe."

I think that Perry is on to something that helps us to bridge the gap between objective and subjective measures of quality. The decision that something is "good" doesn't just come down to anyone's opinion ("what I like"); it also depends on a gradually settled opinion among several broad groups of people in the art world. Ideally, these different groups will have seen enough art and considered it deeply enough that their opinions will be well-informed. As Perry says in answer to a question after his lecture, "should we expect to understand art right away?"

This also brings us back to the overarching theme for this course: time and place. A settled opinion on quality takes time to develop among particular groups of (hopefully informed) people. But settled opinions can change over time, so what was "museum quality" in one era might not be seen the same way in another.

All told, the lecture was provocative and a lot of fun, so I think I may end up listening to the remaining three in the series. Good stuff!