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Playing to the Gallery – book review

Stuart Bush Studio Notes, Playing to the gallery, Grayson Perry

Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry

Have you ever stepped into a contemporary art gallery and felt angry and confused?  How do you tell if something is good or bad?   It can be puzzling trying to form an opinion about contemporary art.  Who can answer this question for us?  Grayson Perry, the transvestite pottery and Turner Prize winner, takes on this brave task in his book ‘Playing to the Gallery’.  In it, Perry guides us on a whistle-stop tour of dissecting contemporary art as he sets out the tools to allow us to an understanding of modern societies’ relationship with art.


His book is based on a series of four lectures for the 2013 BBC Reith Lectures.  In the first lecture titled, ‘Democracy has bad taste’, Grayson talks about how you can tell if something is good or not.


Value is in art is very problematic.  Before I started studying art I was always attracted to the art I saw as l was growing up.  The stuff my community of friends and family liked.  When I saw contemporary art in the media in the 80s and 90s I was as confused as the next person.

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When I started an art education course I went along with a large amount of curiosity and an open mind.  I really wanted to learn. I couldn’t understand how a urinal or a light switch could be put in a gallery and called art.


Since then my opinion about art and its value has changed, however, my personal taste and interest in formal qualities has stayed the same.  Through reading books like ‘Playing to the Gallery’ I have learnt the importance of quality, financial value, popularity, art historical significance and aesthetic sophistication.  I have discovered how they all play a part in the multi registers of value in the art world.  These aspects combined with my own concept of what is aesthetically pleasing, and my idea of beauty still strongly dictates the art I like and make.  However, the concept of beauty is a prickly topic.  As an art lover, I can walk through an art gallery and understand the context behind what I am looking at even though it isn’t always my cup of tea.   As Grayson tells us Alan Bennett observed that, “you don’t have to like it all.”

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Stuart Bush Studio Notes – Grayson Perry

Link to Reith Lecture no 4

At the end of the day what ends up in art galleries, Grayson points out, really comes down to ‘enough of the right people thinking it is good enough.’ While it can be easy to quickly form a subjective opinion, it takes time to emotionally and spiritually engage with art.  You often have to live with artwork to truly understand it.   Grayson commented that he won’t dream of watching Opera for the first time and expect to completely understand it.   He posed the question “if the public chose the artwork that was in art galleries, would it be the same?” I believed the answer is clearly not!  Would it better if they did?  The answer also is clearly not!


In the second lecture, Grayson explores the boundaries of art to jolt us into remembering the limits of what art can be.  The outer limits of what art is can be are obscure and unclear.  Grayson walks around the sociological, tribal, philosophical and financial frontiers of what can be called art, showing us that it often comes down to what has happened since Duchamp announced that anything can be declared as art.

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In the third lecture is titled, ’Nice rebellion, welcome in’. Here he talks about the cutting edge of art.  Asking does art need to shock us or have we seen it all before?  To answer this question Grayson referred to what prominent and acclaimed art critic Robert Hughes said his book and television series, ‘The Shock of the New.’ that “the Avant-garde is now a period style.”

Perry points out that contemporary art is not about originality, as everything has been done before. He tells us that many artists start out with the intention of making an original and dread the response “that reminds me of …”. However, art, he states, has become more like a research and development department for capitalism. Having said that you have to acknowledge that art for financial gain isn’t something new.  Rembrandt made a living selling portrait, while Michelangelo completed many commissions for the church.  As artists, we have to find a way to make a living, we also crave being able to find the perfect house, partner and family to share our lives with.

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In the final lecture called, ‘I found myself in the art world’ Grayson highlights that on page 31 of ‘the Department of Innovation and Skills’ report there is a graph showing the returns of higher education in 2011.


“Compared to someone who has never been to university, art graduates will make just 6.3% more than a none graduate, females 11.7% more and men 1% less.”


It is a hard fact to take on board, however, I am not surprised.  It is all too easy to look at the wealth of artists like Damien Hurst, Jeff Koons and even Bridget Riley.   Nevertheless, the chances of joining this elite class of artists is extremely unlikely.  In contrast to chasing money, the clinical scientist Raymond Tallis argues that,

“Art is expressing one’s universal wound – the wound of living a finite life of incomplete meanings.”

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I like the idea of this honourable journey much more than the concept of making art for financial gain.  Art can give you an incredibly rich life, however, not necessarily a financial one.  Grayson tells us that,

“art’s primary role is not as an asset class, and it’s not necessarily about being an urban-regeneration catalyst.  Its more important role is to make meaning.”


I really enjoyed reading Grayson Perry’s playful and funny guide to the contemporary art world.   It is full of revealing anecdotes that make it accessible and reachable.  However, when I was writing this book review I was trying to work out who this book is for.  I still am not completely sure.  Is it for the artist, the art lover or the inexperienced art admirer?  Either way, I would like to think that everyone interested in art would find something they like in it.


‘Playing to the gallery’ by Grayson Parry is an opinionated but easy to understand the view of the art world, without being a pretentious art manual.  It is a must-read, an honest and thought-provoking book for anyone interested in the subtle issues of the art world.  I can say that as an artist who has benefited enormously from the popularity of contemporary art.


Do you find it easy to choose what you to wear and how to decorate your home but when it comes to choosing art, what a nightmare?  I use to feel the same, I use to look at art and feel duped. I just didn’t get it. However, I had a curiosity to draw and paint and study art to get to the bottom of what I felt I didn’t understand. If you are curious to learn about the artist’s important role of meaning-making, I would love you to join me on my artist’s journey.  Join me each week on my journey by subscribing to my email newsletter. 

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