The second of Grayson Perry's Reith Lectures explores the boundaries of art: what sort of things do and do not qualify as contemporary art?
Perry acknowledges that establishing the limits of art is not easy and that "art" itself has only existed as a self-conscious category for the last few centuries. And although anything can be art (for example, Duchamp's Fountain), art can stop being "art." If this is the case, there must be boundaries even if these are sometimes emotional in nature rather than intellectual. And we want to know where the bounds lie. As Perry says, "I want to know when to put on my art goggles."
To help us do that, Perry proposes eight tests for art:
- Is it in a gallery or art context?
- Is it a boring version of something else?
- Is it made by an artist?
- Photography is problematic: is the subject smiling? Is there any staginess?
- The Limited Edition Test: "if something is endless it gives away some of its art quality."
- The Handbag and Hipster Test: who is looking at it? Is there a queue?
- The Rubbish Dump Test: would anyone notice it and pick it up?
- The Computer Art Test: would it cause anyone to pause and think rather than click through?
No one test is sufficient to establish the "art"label, but Perry sees them forming a Venn diagram "and the bit in the middle is art."
I think that, while we might quibble about one test or another, this is a helpful approach to identifying art. It combines a cluster of judgements that take in the creator, the created object/event, the venue and the audience(s). And although Perry doesn't mention it, it also acknowledges implicitly the role of time: if a piece is "a boring version of something else," enough time must have elapsed for multiple versions to have been created and become boring. The audience/response tests (numbers 6, 7 and 8) also presuppose that an audience has had time to gather and make judgements. Some of those judgements will stand the test of time; others will pass quickly.
As someone with an interest in photography, I'll need to chew on number 4 a bit more. I think this is the weakest of Perry's tests, but it reflects some of the lengthy discussion about the art status of photographic work. Perhaps part of the answer is that a photograph is just as susceptible to Perry's other seven questions as any other piece of work. It would then be up to him to demonstrate why photography doesn't fit his Venn diagram. If a urinal can meet the tests, why not a photograph?