Very few books about contemporary art are laugh-out-loud funny; yet, Grayson Perry’s is. Based on his 2013 series of lectures for the BBC, Playing to the Gallery: Helping Contemporary Art in Its Struggle To Be Understood (Penguin, 2014) is divided into chapters that correspond to the four original lectures: “Democracy Has Bad Taste,” “Beating the Bounds,” “Nice Rebellion, Welcome In!,” and “I Found Myself in the Art World.”
Perry, whose subversive ceramics won him the 2003 Turner Prize, provides thought-provoking and often hilarious observations — like, highbrow vs. middlebrow art, the logistics of art validation, commodification, gentrification, and so on — and tackles questions such as “what is an artist?” as well as “what is art?” His lighthearted, easy to read discourse is punctuated with the artist’s quirky and cartoonish illustrations, adding another level of Perry’s playfulness that is scattered throughout the slim volume. Notable visual gags include a drawing of an intoxicated Jackson Pollock urinating on one of his paintings hanging above Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace, and an “art quality gauge,” a card to be held in front of a piece of art with the question: “Which location would it look most at home in?”
Perry’s ability to simplify complex issues about contemporary art speaks to his clarity of vision as an artist and thinker. He cleverly pins down how the mercurial world of contemporary art is too preoccupied with the worry of falling into middlebrow territory and offers several of his personal “boundaries” to help readers determine whether something qualifies as art, including “Is [the work claimed as art] in a gallery or an art context?” and “Is it made by an artist?” Perry mocks the airs of the highbrow catered to by galleries and museums, as well as the jumble of art jargon written in the tortured style that sounds like poorly translated French theory — now called International Art English.
Playing to the Gallery is a sort of manifesto for inclusivity, seeking to chisel at the art world’s white cube walls, in which Perry set out to support his belief that “anyone is eligible to enjoy art or become an artist — any oil, any prole, any citizen who has a vision that they want to share.”
In his attempt to demystify contemporary art, Perry comes across as well-read but not pretentious, prompting the reader to let out a couple of chuckles while simultaneously pondering major issues that define how we think about and experience art.