Picasso said, "All children are artist. The problem is keeping them artists." This terrific quote appears quite late in Playing to the Gallery, the sparkling new book by celebrated British artist Grayson Perry. And it's an observation that sits at the heart of the book's energetic inquiry into what art means, and who gets to define it.
In Playing to the Gallery, Perry has a simple but valuable message: Anybody can enjoy art, and anybody can have a life in the arts. As he says, "Even I, an Essex transvestite potter, have been let in by the art-world mafia." For Perry, a working class kid who discovered his love for womens clothes when he was young, and before the world at large understood that you can dress as a woman and be straight, identity is the crux for everything.
Perry, who won the prestigious Turner Prize in 2003, has been breaking boundaries for a while, not just with his subversive pottery featuring sadomasochism and little girls sprouting penises, but for his famous alter-ego, Claire. It is Claire who has allowed Perry to explore his identity in ways that make his art come alive. His book feels similarly fresh, filled with very funny illustrations that help illuminate his concerns.
Perry is wonderful at deconstructing the art worlds pretensions. He notes that for the art world, the huge popularity of David Hockney's blockbuster 2012 exhibition, A Bigger Splash, was a definite checkmark against it. Perry is very funny, and very insightful, on the way in which an artist becomes, essentially, reduced in critical esteem as he grows in popularity. He writes: "A visitor to an exhibition, like the Hockney exhibition, if they were judging the quality of the art, they might use a word like 'beauty'. Now if you use that kind of word in the art world, be very careful. There will be a sucking of teeth and a mournful shaking of heads because their hero artist, Marcel Duchamp (he of urinal fame), said, 'aesthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided.' To judge a work on its aesthetic merit is to buy into some discredited, fusty hierarchy, tainted with sexism, racism, colonialism and class privilege. It's loaded, this idea of beauty, because where does our idea of beauty come from?"
Of course, this is both true, and depressing. It teaches us to be suspicious of things we like easily and intuitively, and to feel dumb in the world of serious contemporary art, where accessibility is frowned upon. Back to Picasso's child: "Emotionally, I am still very attached to a child's idea of what art is," Perry writes. "I grew up thinking that drawing, painting, and making sculptures was art, and all the art I love is quite traditional. So even though I can intellectually engage and even appreciate some of the more expanding field of art, I am still more attached to the old thing. That is, art as a visual medium, usually made by the artist's hand, which is a pleasure to make, to look at and to show others."
For all that, Perry does believe, like Duchamp, that anything can be art, but that doesn't mean, as it did for Duchamp, that saying something is art makes it so. For Perry that reflects a kind of art-world arrogance. It's a final irony that arguably the most influential artwork of the 20th century--a urinal--is only preserved for us through a blurry photo. In a fitting twist that urinal was smashed shortly after its New York debut in 1917, and the model subsequently phased out. Today, if you see it in a gallery it will have been hand-built by a potter.
Grayson Perry, as Claire, will be hosting an event at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 11 at 6.30pm. Tickets, which are $30, can be purchased here.