Grayson Perry — "Beating the Bounds"

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: 

  1. Is it in a gallery or art context?
  2. Is it a boring version of something else? 
  3. Is it made by an artist? 
  4. Photography is problematic: is the subject smiling? Is there any staginess?
  5. The Limited Edition Test: "if something is endless it gives away some of its art quality." 
  6. The Handbag and Hipster Test: who is looking at it? Is there a queue? 
  7. The Rubbish Dump Test: would anyone notice it and pick it up? 
  8. 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?

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!