Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery is his short guide to visiting a gallery, looking at art and asking questions we are too embarrassed to ask. It reads like a conversation, rather than an essay, which enables Perry to turn childlike questions into something more philosophical, appealing to my enquiring mind. The title is dual purpose as the word ‘Playing’ demonstrates his belief that art should be seen and enjoyed by a wide and non-exclusive audience but it also toys with the idea of modern exhibitors needing to ‘play the game’ and understand an industry, which he refers to as the Establishment.
What is evident is that a) he wrote it himself and b) he is not a writer – and I mean this as a compliment. His repetition of words and colloquial language could have been clipped by a professional, but I’m pleased it wasn’t as it makes for an intimate and informal read. Without a ghost writer his voice is unpretentious, mostly humorous and still has integrity. Like a mischievous and knowledgeable tour guide he takes you through a series of entertaining anecdotes about himself, art movements, artists and paintings. These stories are brief and colourful and used to lighten, rather than distract from, the main thread which is really about what makes art, art. Playing The Gallery is not about Grayson Perry or his art and it’s not necessary to know his work (although a very basic knowledge of him and understanding he has been accepted by the ‘establishment’ is useful). The book requires no knowledge of art and would appeal to a 9-99 age group. Beyond 99 you’ve probably worked things out for yourself.
Perry attempts to answer the big questions, “What is art?”, “Who decides it is art” and “How can we tell if what we are looking at is any good”. His line of enquiry is thrown out to the reader but you are not left feeling you should necessarily agree with him, although you never doubt his own convictions, which are stated clearly and passionately. He has a deep self awareness, making comments on what he doesn’t want to be – “I’m sometimes held up as a poster boy of the handmade but I don’t want to be that person”, and ”I have a horror of becoming trendily fashionable ”. Upon winning the Turner Prize he was asked, “Grayson, are you a lovable character or are you a serious artist”, to which he replied, “Can’t I be both?”.
He is modest when he speaks of his own success in the art world, which is mentioned with childlike joy rather than a pompous boast and he is always happy to poke fun at the bigger picture. His own ironic formula, that guarantees success in the contemporary art word, is:
A half decent idea divided by an ambitious dealer, multiplied by a number of studio assistants, then equals the amount of hedge fund manager and oligarchs in the world.
On it’s own this may sound facetious but in the context of the chapter ‘Democracy has bad taste’, where he talks about the factions who validate art works, it’s really rather brilliant and especially as the formula is shown as an illustration. The book is peppered with his hand drawn diagrams and they are worth buying as a separate postcard pack.
I loved this book and have walked away with questions as well as some satisfying answers. I also have some cracking little stories to quote to friends. I will leave you with one of the less serious ones, about the poet WH Auden, who liked heavy blankets when he went to bed.
“Once, he was in a house and he didn’t have enough blankets on his bed, so he took a painting off the wall, still in the frame and laid it down on the bed. I love the idea that he took a painting and made it functional”.
Playing to the Gallery Postcards: Thirty-six Postcards About Art
Playing to the Gallery: Helping Contemporary Art in its Struggle to Be Understood
ISBN: 978-0141979618, 144 pages, paperback