Lecture: So you wanna know about the art world: Here’s one artist’s view…

Let’s be frank; art today is a highly confusing subject. Understanding it’s not easy. There’s no dominant style and artists employ virtually any technology to explore a seemingly limitless array of subjects. In order to know what many artists are up to, it’s not enough to just let your eyes soak up the content of exhibitions. A significant part of gallery going involves sifting through press releases, artist’s statements and other forms of printed matter. Quite often this material complicates rather than clarifies, over emphasizes the importance of the work or just happens to be poorly written.

The fact that artists now do pretty much whatever they can think of doing has robbed art viewers of markers that could help them navigate exhibitions. How to look at art remains a quandary for many and not every one has the time or energy to make the effort to try and sort it all out. Some like the elusive quality art has. They think that good art shouldn’t be cut and dried, and they revel in its tentativeness.

Thus it was a delight to listen to 2013’s Reith Lectures on BBC. Laughter isn’t something often associated with contemporary art, yet here was Turner Prize nominated Grayson Perry discussing the art world and engendering healthy doses of it. He titled his series of lectures Playing to the Gallery. Delivered from various locations around the UK – from Tate Modern in London, Liverpool, Derry/Londonderry and in London again at St. Martin’s School of Art – the talks touched upon the mysteries of the art world, his own development and interests, and the challenges facing young artists today. Comments that struck a chord are listed below:

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One of 8 drawings Perry made to accompany the 2013 Reith Lectures

Lecture 1: Democracy Has Bad Taste

“The art world has been fairly inward-looking because it can operate as a fairly closed circle. In many ways there are many artists who are very successful who don’t need the public at all. There’s a closed circle of the artist, the dealer, the collector. You don’t necessary need a wider audience.”

“Now ethnographer Sarah Thornton in her book Seven Days in the Art World, she quotes an Art Forum editor, Art Forum being the magazine of record in the art world, she quotes, she says this editor said of a previous incumbent of her job, she said yes English wasn’t her first language so during her tenure as the editor, the magazine suffered from the wrong kind of unreadability.”

Lecture 2: Beating The Bounds

“This idea of doing anything you kind of fancy doing and calling it art to sort of lend it kudos or sort of viability has become you know quite common.”

So how to know what’s art? “…is it in a gallery or an art context?” “…is it a boring version of something else?” “…is it made by an artist?”

Does it pass the rubbish dump test? “Throw it onto a rubbish dump. And if people walking by notice that it’s there and say “Oh what’s that artwork doing on that rubbish dump”, it’s passed. But of course many good artworks would fail that because the rubbish dump itself might be the artwork.”

Lecture 3: Nice Rebellion: Welcome In

“We are now in the end state of art. Now this is … You know I don’t mean that it’s all over. What I mean is art has reached its final state. Anything can be art now.”

“But revolution and rebellion and this idea of upheaval is no longer what I would think of as a defining idea. You know if you’d have gone back a hundred years, art was almost synonymous with this idea of rev… You know it was the same thing. It was you know you’d go to the exhibition of the Fauves and people would be shocked and offended, you know…”

“But one thing the web might do for art, which is maybe a slightly frightening prospect, is that it might fulfill the artist Joseph Beuys’ prophecy that anybody could be an artist. That’s quite a frightening, horrific thought really because we could drown in a sea of mediocrity.”

Lecture 4: I Found Myself In The Art World

“You know people say, “What do they teach at art college now?” It’s a complex thing. And at the end of it students hopefully emerge having found themselves and hopefully
feeling very unique. But, as the old saying goes, originality is for people with very short memories. It does of course exist and that shock of pleasure is one of the you know greatest things that anybody who’s interested in art can experience, but the best artists, they take quite a while to find their voice. It takes a long time. I mean an art career is a
marathon, it’s not a sprint.”

“But that most difficult moment I think for a young artist is that moment when you leave art college after all those years of education and suddenly it’s just you and the
world – unprotected, undirected, nowadays of course very much in debt. And I always think it’s very poignant as well when you see the parents at the degree
shows – those people who perhaps come down from a long way away, you know, and they’ve come to see what little Billy or Jilly’s been up to and they’re very worried
about how Billy or Jilly’s going to make a living tying string round the banisters or making warships out of cardboard or videos of shadows. Oh my god,
it’s very frightening…”

Joseph Beuys photographed by Rainer Rappmann
Joseph Beuys photographed by Rainer Rappmann (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Transcripts and recordings of the individual lectures are available through the BBC website. Clink on the links to read or listen.)

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