Grayson Perry talks about the state of art in the 21st century in the 2013 BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures.

British artist Grayson Perry was selected to deliver this year’s BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures, titled “Playing to the Gallery”. Art Radar reports on the first lecture of the series, in which the artist explains why “Democracy has Bad Taste.” 

Grayson Perry dressed as his alter ego Claire. Screenshot image from

Grayson Perry dressed as his female alter ego Claire. Screenshot image from

BBC Radio 4 selected British artist Grayson Perry, famous for his cross-dressed alter ego Claire and his painterly pottery, to deliver the 2013 Reith Lectures. Comprising four lectures recorded in front of an audience at four different venues in the UK, the series is titled “Playing to the Gallery”.

Art Radar gives a summary of the first lecture of the series, “Democracy Has Bad Taste”, recorded at Tate Modern in London and aired on 15 October 2013, in which the artist explores ideas of quality in art:

  • who defines what is good and what is not
  • the language used in art circles
  • the role of the public in art appreciation.
Grayson Perry, 'This pot will reduce crime by 19%', 2007. Image by Marc Wathieu on

Grayson Perry, ‘This pot will reduce crime by 19%’, 2007. Image by Marc Wathieu on

Who is Grayson Perry?

After studying Fine Art at Portsmouth Polytechnic, Perry took pottery classes and in 1983 he started exhibiting his work. In 2003, he won the Turner Prize, and as presenter Sue Lawley puts it, “the potter who up till then had been talked of as an artists’ artist became an important force in the world of art.” Perry is most famous for his decorative pottery, which carries a subversive message that the artist describes as “spiky”. However, he also works in other media, and his most recent tapestries, exploring what Lawley calls “a modern Rake’s Progress from working class childhood to death in a Ferrari”, were a centrepiece at the 2013 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The artist is an acute, irreverent observer of contemporary society, mocking it, but also explaining and enlivening the way we live today.

Grayson Perry, detail of tapestry at the exhibition "The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen", 2012, British Museum, London. Image from Shiraz Chakera on

Grayson Perry, detail of tapestry at the exhibition “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen”, 2012, British Museum, London. Image from Shiraz Chakera on

Art is for everyone, “even a transvestite potter”

Introducing himself and the reason why he has been chosen to deliver the Reith Lectures this year, Perry says that as an insider, a “foot soldier” of the art world – generally regarded as a closed-up elite world – his aim is to show that “anybody can enjoy art and anybody can have a life in the arts.” As he puts it, even he, “an Essex transvestite potter”, has been let into the art world.

The art world is, as he simply describes for the public, “the stuff” that can be seen in museums, galleries, biennales, fairs around the world, but also in the most common public spaces nowadays. He goes on to say that the target group of people for his lecture are not the savvy, insider art elite and what he calls the “mature explorers”, but rather everyone else, the common people, those who most of the time are intimidated by the galleries, insecure about how to approach art.

Want to find out how to appreciate contemporary Asian art? Art Radar founder Kate Cary Evans will tell you more at Asia Society Hong Kong in December. Sign up here!

What is good art: does quality equal beauty?

The first question Perry raises is “how do we tell if something is good? And who tells us that it’s good?” The artist tries to explain who the major “stakeholders” in quality decision-making are. He lists criteria for defining quality, such as financial value, popularity, art historical significance, or aesthetic sophistication. Perry talks about how popularity and quality seem to be at odds with each other in the art world, citing as example David Hockney’s 2012 exhibition at the Royal Academy: a very popular show, and yet, one of the worst shows ever seen according to one of the most important gallery directors in the country. A couple of Russian artists in the 1990s, who ran a worldwide survey on popularity, demonstrated how people aesthetically wanted the same thing everywhere in the world: figures and animals on a blue background. What is good art then?

Historically, there have been various attempts to define perfect beauty, such as the Greek’s Golden Ratio, William Hogarth’s serpentine line in painting, or the Venetian Secret thought to be used by Titian and his contemporaries. “Beauty” is usually what defines quality for a visitor at an exhibition, but Perry warns against the use of this word, which would anger contemporary followers of Duchamp, who said that “aesthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided”.

Grayson Perry, 'Revenge of the Alison Girls', 2000. Image by Marc Wathieu on

Grayson Perry, ‘Revenge of the Alison Girls’, 2000. Image by Marc Wathieu on

The mysterious ways of the market

Perry lists key players in his mocked-up twenty-first century Venetian Secret through a mathematical formula that includes studio assistants, art dealers, oligarchs, hedge fund managers. This, he says, comes to the conclusion that the nearest we have to an empirical measure of art and its quality today is the market. Perry mockingly and ironically cites some examples of how art’s quality and value are decided by the players in the market. For example, in galleries, paintings will be priced according to size, from the smallest being cheapest to the largest being the most expensive, while at the same time at an auction, the highest quality artwork will fetch the highest price, regardless of its size. Perry also brings into question the criteria once exposed to him by Philip Hook from Sotheby’s: he said red paintings will always sell best, followed by white, blue, yellow, green and black. But the red painting is not just any red painting – it has been validated. The question is then, who validates art?

Who decides which art is ‘good’?

Perry says there is quite “a cast of characters in this validation chorus that is going to kind of decide what is good art,” and together they all form “a lovely consensus” around what is good art. According to Sir Alan Bowness, previous director of Tate Gallery, there are four stages to the rise and success of an artist: peer approval, serious critics and collectors, dealers and finally the public. The artist explains how important the approval of fellow artists is at the start and how critics will judge an artwork. Then come the collectors, who might be serious players or merely individuals keen on “glitzing up” their homes or resell for a higher profit. Art dealers take the highest credit, in that they will validate the artwork through their own reputation and will also choose where to place (or whom to sell to) the artwork. Perry explains that nowadays there is also another criteria for validation of a work of art, “museum quality”, which is judged by someone else at the top of the validation process: the curators, called by German critic William Bongard “the popes of art”, who will select artworks to place in an important exhibition or institution.

Takashi Murakami (b. 1962), ‘The World of Sphere’, (diptych), 2003, acrylic on canvas, 350 x 350 cm, est. HKD16 – 24 million / USD2.1– 3.1 million. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Takashi Murakami (b. 1962), ‘The World of Sphere’, (diptych), 2003, acrylic on canvas, 350 x 350 cm, est. HKD16 – 24 million / USD2.1– 3.1 million. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Let’s be serious

Perry reflects on how the art world makes their validation “serious” through the use of art language: a very important vehicle in the art world, which started around the 1960s. Perry quotes ethnographer Sarah Thornton,who in her book Seven Days in the Art World, cites the then Art Forum editor as saying that the previous editor was not a native English speaker and, therefore, her English suffered from “the wrong kind of unreadability.” Perry cites another example of a wall text at the Venice Biennale, to demonstrate that what is now called “International Art English” is a way of over-intellectualising art, of making it sound more serious and validate it further. What happens, says the artist, is in fact confusion and unreadability, it makes people feel as outsiders if they do not understand it or are not fluent in it, and makes them feel unable to pass judgement. Perry says that in fact, people do not need to know this language to appreciate art.

Tino Seghal, 'These Associations', 2012, Turbine Hall commission for "The Unilever Series", Tate Modern, London. Image from

Tino Seghal, ‘These Associations’, 2012, Turbine Hall commission for “The Unilever Series”, Tate Modern, London. Image from

Democracy has bad taste, but does it matter if it’s good?

Perry notes that judging the quality of most contemporary conceptual art is difficult, as it sometimes blurs boundaries with non-artistic fields or it doesn’t feature an actual physical work. He cites examples such as Takashi Murakamiand his Louis Vuitton bags shop in the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in LA, which can be regarded as luxury goods, and Tino Seghal’s The Associations, a public participatory performance-installation at Tate Modern in 2012.

Then, how do we judge if something is good or not? Against what principles? And with what language, if not that of the art elite? If the only criteria used in judging an artwork is public popularity, Perry says there might be a problem because, generally, “Democray has bad taste.” But does it really matter if the art is popularly good? No, it doesn’t. As Alan Bennett, former trustee of the National Gallery, said: “You don’t have to like all of it.”

In the end, Grayson Perry closes the lecture by saying that he tried to explain how “quality art” ends up in museums, institutions, biennales and fairs, and it all comes down to one sentence: “in the end, it’s if enough of the right people think it’s good and that’s all there is to it.”

Want to find out how to appreciate contemporary Asian art? Art Radar founder Kate Cary Evans will tell you more at Asia Society Hong Kong in December. Sign up here!

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

Related topics: events in London, lectures and talks on art, international artists, democratisation of art

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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