Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry

Well, it’s a great deal lighter than The Shock of the New. Even in paperback, that was a heavy book to hold. Metaphorically, too, it’s lighter. Much more tentative in its pronouncements  – except when it’s not. And funnier. I’d caught a couple of Perry’s Reith lectures on contemporary art on the radio and was entertained by them. His voice comes across exactly the same on the page: mischievous, questioning and teasing, walking the tightrope between seriousness and irony. He doesn’t really pin down what contemporary art is or whether it’s any good – that’s for you to decide, and he gives you some tools to start the process. He states that it’s not difficult to engage intellectually with contemporary art – which is my own experience – but that emotional and spiritual (?!) engagement takes longer – ditto.

And, yes, it’s the curators and posterity that ultimately decide what’s of lasting significance. Relying on public taste is problematic: we’re rather conservative in our likes and dislikes. A landscape with some figures and an animal or two is our preference . . . and, come to think of it, that probably sums up my favourite holiday snaps. (Today’s news that the public is overwhelmingly voting for the next polar research vessel to be named RRS Boaty McBoatface kind of says it all. And yet – to go into Perry-speak – that’s also lovely.)

Another aside is how Perry himself embodies how much context matters – how it changes, frames and shapes our views. Once upon a time a man in a dress and make-up would only have been listened to in the context of, respectively, religion and the theatre. Now, Perry can stand in front of a large audience and be listened to as someone with something serious to say. (So I assume – obviously the full force of his persona doesn’t hit you on the paper or the radio.)

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