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Book Report: Playing to the Gallery

I’m interested in Grayson Perry as a sort of public figure—I can’t say I much like the art that I’ve seen pictures of, I’m afraid, although of course with pots and tapestries it’s unlikely the pictures on the internet do the artworks justice. But the person, or at least the public persona, I find fascinating. He’s wildly transgressive in a comforting, middle-brow way; he’s a straight man who likes wearing dresses, particularly outrageous ones; he pontificates about art while mocking the way art seems to draw people into pontificating. He’s an unpopular pop artist. He combines being an avant-garde artist with being a television personality. It’s as if Robert Mapplethorpe combined with Graham Norton, or as if Salvador Dali.

The cartoon on the cover of Playing to the Gallery, Helping Contemporary Art in Its Struggle to Be Understood, has the title scrawled in spray paint over a Rothko. I like contemporary art, but I have never really enjoyed Rothko’s stuff, so that was an added spark of interest—tho’ I don’t think, in that specific case, that Rothko’s paintings need help to be understood, but maybe they do. And while I like contemporary art, not everybody does; perhaps, I thought, this book will help me in my struggle to be understood as genuinely liking Clyfford Still’s stuff or Sol Lewitt’s. At any rate, I grabbed it off the library shelf and gave it a try.

It’s entertaining, often cleverly written, largely unhelpful, inconsistent, somewhat incoherent and a lot of fun. I don’t think it will help contemporary art in its struggle to be understood—if you don’t like the stuff, at best you will feel better about not liking it. Or at least feel less like the stuff is an insult directed at you personally, which seems to be a common reaction… it’s much more likely to be an insult directed at previous generations of artists. And recent ones, too, which means that the insulted stuff is also contemporary art, within the meaning of the act, and you won’t have liked that, either.

As a working artist, concerned for his income with gallery shows and critics, museums and crowds, Mr. Perry has some interesting insights into the industry. He also is aware that, for instance, a hundred years have passed since Marcel Duchamp put his Fountain on show. His art-school teachers’ art-school teachers would have been too young for art school when that happened. I’ve read far too much pontification about contemporary art that fails to understand that there has been time for reactions to reactions to reactions to that provocation. It’s still a marvelous joke, but it’s a marvelous old joke, and has been for a good long while now.

Anyway, the book is unsatisfying and provoking, and good, too. If you would rather, you can listen to the Reith Lectures from which the book was adapted. The Q&A part is pretty good, I have to say.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,