What We’re Reading: Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry

Naomi Vanderleest, Education Assistant

What is contemporary art? Most argue it is art created during the 21st century (historically it is art created from the 1970s onward), but some contend that certain pieces don’t warrant the title of “art” at all. So, when does a work of art become art? That is a complicated question, but this book helps answer it! In Playing to the Gallery, Grayson Perry summarizes art as an artist’s creation; if an artist claims their work as art then it is. Perry references his own experiences as an artist to back up this claim, defining what contemporary art is and helping the reader see why people should care about it. After all, if you go into an art museum today you are very likely to see at least a few pieces of contemporary art. 

Perry doesn’t punish the reader for not agreeing with him; instead, he offers a reason for the average skeptic to embrace contemporary art. He explains, “for somebody to walk into a contemporary art gallery for the first time and expect to understand it straight away would be like me walking into a classical music concert, knowing nothing about classical music, and saying ‘Oh it’s all just noise.’ ” (p. v)

Each chapter tackles a different aspect of the art world by answering questions that may come to mind while in a gallery. For example, the first chapter examines what is quality, how might we judge it, whose opinion counts, and does it even matter anymore? Perry believes that art doesn’t have to be famous to be enjoyed; thus, the general public’s opinion of the art world doesn’t really matter. He cites a psychology experiment that exposed people to photographs of paintings regularly. Later, the people were asked to pick their favorite photographs from a series of similar and famous images. The test subjects tended to favor images they were exposed to more frequently than the “famous” ones. Though the experiment isn’t concrete evidence, because of the number of variables in it, it does suggest skepticism in following the public opinion. 

Perry calls curators “the popes of art” (p.xxix) because of the curator’s code of ethics they cannot buy art for themselves; instead, they create exhibitions that benefit an institution, which results in benefiting the artist. Curators contribute to the validation process of art: if a museum warrants artworks as worthy, then collectors desire them. Perry put this to the test through his own artwork, Lovely Consensus; he asked his dealer for 50 names of people and institutions where his work should end up and put them on his pot. One of the names on that pot was Dakis Joannou. When Joannou saw it in the Tate Gallery London he bought it over the phone while looking at it in the gallery. Perry goes on to explain that the art world is a business; art has an ever-changing value, just as the economy fluctuates. The nature of “art as business” means those who contribute to the value of art opinions matter and drive what becomes famous, such as curators and collectors. 

It is important to remember that breaking down the art world as just a business doesn’t undermine what it has accomplished. Perry references how art historical movements have led up to today’s understanding of art. He credits the idea that anything can be art to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. Duchamp entered a urinal in the Independent Art Exhibition in 1917 in New York; he claimed it was a ready-made, art that was made industrially originally but fit for display in a gallery. If you were to see Fountain today it is only a copy (the original was destroyed), and the urinal used for the work isn’t factory-made anymore (a ceramicist made it). Fountain’s importance doesn’t lie with how it was made but the intellectual conversation it started. Even though a ready-made isn’t necessarily made by the artist who claims it as their own, the artist has the idea to display it. Perry explains this as the power of the artist; if an artist claims something as their art, then it has the potential to be so. 

Perry doesn’t completely agree with the idea that anything can be art; instead, he uses this idea to build criteria to determine if something is art. He claims “ the artwork needs to be in a context where you might find art. After all, if Duchamp had left his urinal attached to the wall in the lavatory I doubt it would have had the same impact” (p. lviii). [Consider the banana duct-tapped to the wall at Art Basel. Duct-tapped to the wall of a subway station, is it art then?). The idea that art resides in a gallery builds upon Perry’s earlier statement that art in a gallery has value. He continues using various criteria to define art, such as the rubbish-dump test. If an artwork was put in a garbage bin would someone stop and wonder: Why is this here?! If so, then it is art. He goes on to explain that this test isn’t completely accurate, as some artwork is meant to look like garbage. He summarizes his points by stating a constant he finds in art: the reaction. When looking at art a reaction happens, and while this reaction is different for everyone, it is a person’s attempt to make meaning from the artwork. 

Keith Hopewell, English, b. 1972. Yearning for the Ideal. Spray paint of canvas, 2020. Loan from the Artist. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Currently have on display at FWMoA is a contemporary art show titled Next Wave: New Contemporaries of the Abstract Art Movement. Our contemporary curator, Josef Zimmerman, decided to put this work on a gallery wall. Returning to the book, this dictates that the work has value! I put Perry’s criteria to the test by recording my own reaction to the artwork in the gallery. The first work I reacted to was Yearning for the Ideal by Keith Hopewell, pictured above. A screen is displayed between these two works, and it shows how the artist made the work on the right by rolling a spray can that is constantly spraying to make a series of marks. You would think that this work lacks meaning because the artist revealed how the work was made, but the video conjures even more thoughts for me. How did he create the work on the left? The marks on the left don’t look the same as on the right, so I don’t believe it is the same technique, but the spray can could have moved a different way. The video invites the viewer to understand the artist’s technique and apply it to what they see. Having this example allows us to become the artist with our imagination, using our eyes to read each mark like the spray can rolling around to create them. That I had a reaction fulfills Perry’s test; it is art!

I decided to complete this test with one more work in this exhibition. 

Steve More, English, b. 1971. White Syntax (VIII). Spray paint on bricks, 2010. Loan from the Artist. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

I picked this artwork because some might struggle to see the meaning in it; bricks are seen in everyday life, so why are they in a gallery? This sculpture is more than just its components, an artist created this work. Looking closely I noticed some thought behind their arrangement.

These bricks have a special mold that tells us where the artist, Steve More, is from, Edinburgh (the capital of Scotland). For the visitors who have yet to visit, installing this sculpture here allows the viewer to step into the artist’s world. For those that have visited, it may cause them to think back to their time spent in Scotland. This work is displayed on the ground, which reminds me of brick roads, a narrative that is supported by other elements in the work. The black lines create a series of arrows that point to create a sense of movement, like cars driving by. This shade of black also reminds me of the color of tires. There are some strange deposits on the brick that make me think about the history of these bricks: where have they been? Who has walked on them? You might not agree with my interpretation of this artwork, but the fact that you are making meaning of this sculpture warrants it to be given the title “art”. 

Found yourself having trouble making meaning out of contemporary artworks? Read this book before you step into a gallery to gain a new understanding of art. You might find yourself looking more intently at contemporary and abstract art during your next visit! 

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