Saturday, 16 November 2013

Grayson Perry: the stealth spirituality of art

4 our mother by grayson perry1

Before I say anything else, I have to come clean and declare that I am a huge fan of Grayson Perry both as an artist and as a thinker (and I don’t mean to suggest that those are separate facets of Perry, but only to emphasize the prominence of reflection in his work). I have first encountered his pottery when he won the Turner Prize in 2003, then I immensely enjoyed his three-part Channel 4 series “All In The Best Possible Taste” - where I was not only impressed by the tapestries he created as the product of his analysis of the tastes of different classes in British society, but very much also by his ability to relate with such immediacy to all he met in the process - and finally I have delighted in his Reith lectures both due to their tremendously entertaining form (the whip-cracking sounds of the second lecture, his pronunciation of Duchamp [DushomP] and his jovial laughter being highlights) and their partly ironic/satirical and partly sincere, profound, spiritual content.

If you have any interest in art whatsoever, I highly recommend the lectures, which can be found at the BBC 4 website both in audio an transcribed textual form. There, Perry will take you through his thoughts on what art is versus is not, what makes good art, what the position of art and artist is in contemporary society and what it is like to become and be an artist. If you are looking for formulaic answers or even definitions, you’ll be disappointed, but if you are willing to be lead through the warren of insights into and critiques of the “art world” that Perry masterfully moulds together, you will come away greatly enriched.

Instead of attempting a synthesis or even just a walk-through of my favorite bits, let me only focus on a single aspect of Perry’s Reith lectures: the tension between the irony of the art world and the sincerity that is the source of art. Both are effected by artists, yet they stand in opposition to each other.

In Lecture 3, Perry first presents the pitfalls of irony (whose application copiously peppers all four of his lectures):
“[D]etached irony has become the kind of default mode of our time in the art world. And you know I think it can be problematic. [... Tracey Thorn describes the problem of irony as follows:] “It is difficult for people in the arts to be entirely sincere about things without looking like they have not thought about it properly.” The problem with irony is that it assumes the position of being the end result, from having looked at it from both sides and have a very sophisticated take on everything. So the danger of eschewing irony is that you look as though you’ve not thought hard enough about it and that you’re being a bit simplistic. [...] Me, I have to sort of protect myself against this because when I’m out in the evening and I’m with my mates and I’m being terribly cynical and ironic; 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. I’ve dedicated my life to it. So I go to exhibitions in the morning on my own when I can go, hmn, and you know maybe have a little bit of a moment. (LAUGHTER) I have to protect my tender parts from that wicked irony. And perhaps the most shocking tactic that’s left to artists these days is sincerity.”
By considering irony to be a sign of reflection and careful though, it becomes an expected feature of an artist’s response to art. Yet, at the same time, irony is an inhibitor of sincerity and to the forming of genuine connections with art or with others. The artist is expected to be externally ironic while internally sincere and the danger of the former taking over and stifling the latter is a concern for Perry.

Towards the end of Lecture 4 and then in response to a question from the audience, Perry elaborates further:
I have a list of banned words: passionate, spiritual, profound. I mean these are all words I could describe - this tender part of me, the tender part that many artists have, you know what keeps them going - but I have an acute allergy to cliches [...] and I have to protect that part of me from becoming a cliché. [... Jennifer Yane expressed it by saying:] “Art is spirituality in drag.” [... It’s] the idea that it’s a kind of performance of spirituality, it’s a dressing up, and it’s kind of like a way to accessing spirituality perhaps by stealth almost - you know being tricked into all the colour and loveliness of the art. You know we look at it and suddenly we’re having a spiritual moment, you know. But, like I say, I’m not allowed to talk … [...] But the metaphor that [...] best describes what it’s like for me being an artist is a refuge, a place inside my head where I can go on my own and process the world and its complexities. It’s a kind of inner shed in which I can lose myself.
There are a couple of points that I really like about what Perry says here. First, that it is the “tender,” inner part of his self that drives his art, which very much reminds me (no, not of Martin Parr) of Kandinsky, who characterizes art as the consequence of an inner necessity. Second, that Perry is protective of this innermost tenderness and sincerity, since he considers their expression to be of importance - to be serious. Third, the at first jarring expression of art being “spirituality in drag”1 actually makes great sense, as explained by Perry: aesthetics and the superficial, at-first-sight are the means by which the profound, innermost, spiritual are smuggled past irony, much like Odysseus’ strapping sheep furs on his back let him escape the cyclops Polyphemus’ abattoir. In many ways, Perry himself comes across as a personification of this definition of art, with a form that has an element of wink-wink, nudge-nudge and hyperbole, but with a substance that is tender, spiritual and profound.

1 Grayson Perry being a transvestite (in a tradition whose roots reach back at least to Ancient Greek theatre, where all characters of the period’s seminal tragedies and comedies were played by male actors, via the pepperpots of Monty Python fame) adds to the poignancy of this definition.