Grayson teaches me that art makes meaning

I wouldn’t have sought this book out. Partly because I’d never heard about it and partly because I would have thought it would be rather shouty-flouty-fancy-arty. You know what I mean…SHOUTY and ARTY and sort of rather flouncy and fancy. With words I don’t understand – or can barely pronounce.

But bought it I did. Playing to the Gallery. By Grayson Perry 


Because it was in the bargain box at my local Waterstones for a quid. I’ll take a punt on that, I thought. It’s cheaper than a cofffee and it will last longer.

That night,  after the weirdly British end to the working week of going for a drink with colleagues – when you could be eating a cake straight out of a baking tin while it’s still hot – why don’t people do more of that and less standing around in town bars – I opened the book. I was in bed, a hot water bottle nestled between my feet and I began.

Holy shnizzle.

This book is going to sort out all the artistic-based questions I’ve ever had. I like art. I think. Is that what one says these days – oh yes I like art. I don’t know. I get all excited and rush off to galleries and then look at what’s in front of me and think in a Neanderthal-cross-cultural-Luddite fashion – yep that’s nice, I like the colours. If I want to go a step further and really flounce up my artistic critique I’ll wham it up another notch – how does it make me feel. Oh it makes me – happy, relaxed or unsettled. It’s always those things. Always.

But this book is going to explain to me, Grayson promises, that it will help me understand what makes great art great.

I’m tired – from not eating cake out of the hot melty tin – but I read on. I’m intrigued. Grayson, you’ve got me.

He muses on Proust’s. famous saying that ‘we only see beauty when we are looking through an ornate gold frame.’ Saying that what we consider beautiful is what’s been been conditioned to see as beautiful.

Who decides if art is great – the collector, the seller and ultimately the market and how much someone will pay for something. Apparently some dude at Sotheby’s says that red paintings sell best – followed by white, blue, yellow, green and black.  Some people say that if people are exposed to certain images then they prefer those types of images.

But ultimately, Grayson reveals it is all about validation – who is validating it.

Is art only great if it is ‘museum quality’ and the ‘art world tribe’ has its own set of values – which don’t necessarily agree with the wider world. He poses a really interesting question: If the public chose the artwork that was in art gallery, would it be the same?

He also discusses what is and isn’t art. Like when Marcel Duchamp said a urinal was art. And that leads to Banksy – one of his works was up for sale (having been taken off the wall) but he said it was no longer ‘a Banksy’ because it had been taken off the wall. But who gives us the right to say what is and isn’t art?

Then there was Rauschenberg who was asked to paint someone called Iris Clert. He wrote a telegram back saying ‘this is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so’. Bold.

But the book’s greatest insights are these. When Grayson is recounting a meeting between a friend and a child at the Whitechapel Art Gallery education programme. The kid is asked at start what contemporary artists do. Kid replies: “They sit around in Starbucks and eat organic salad.” After the education programme the child is asked same question and replies: “They notice things.”

And Grayson concludes what the point of art is in a quite matter-of-fact manner: “It’s most important role is to make meaning.”

What a great book. I loved it.


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