Grayson Perry

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2017 edition of New Humanist.

The British satirical journal Private Eye makes a virtue of long-running jokes, many of which have become so ubiquitous they’re now part of the general vernacular. The phrase “tired and emotional”, a euphemism for drunk first applied to Labour politician George Brown in the pages of Private Eye in the 1960s, is now common parlance. Some jokes get funnier the more you tell them. Others do not, and the Eye often fills its bi-weekly pages with a number of repetitious cartoons that labour around the same unfunny punchlines: that supermodels are thin, working-class people are violent, and residents of Islington are pretentious snobs.

One cartoon that is probably past its sell-by date is “Young British Artists”, which focuses on the loosely defined art movement of the same name that changed both the British art market and the public’s relationship with art during the 1990s and early 2000s. We’re now a couple of generations past that cultural moment, and those artists are certainly no longer young. Nevertheless, the cartoon continues, revolving around the joke that the movement was cynical, without artistic “talent”, avaricious and publicity-hungry, and not much more. The joke did originally touch upon some pertinent points about the artists. The YBAs approach to their art was to move it back into the public, and popular, sphere. Artists such as Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst were experimenting with developing a peculiarly British public identity as artists, and to do so utilised a peculiarly British relationship with art – not least with its portrayal in the nation’s unique media landscape.

That relationship could perhaps be summed up in the maxim “love to hate”. The YBAs built their public profile by engaging not with the art establishment of the time, but with the tabloid press, who could run full-page splashes on the sick, depraved art that “even your 6-year-old could do”. Hirst was a master of the form; by taking the visual language of a worn-out and po-faced minimalism (such as the size, scale and material properties of the glass vitrine) he created a visual form that the general public could recognise looked “like art”. Into it he dropped a shocking and grotesque image: a great white shark, or a rotting cow’s head, devoured by flies. Labelled with a title that vaguely hinted at the great tropes of what art “should” address – life, death, meaning and passion – the recipe was perfected. The more appalled headlines it provoked, the more the art was worth, and as the sales prices increased, the more the phenomenon fascinated both the tabloids and the middle-class broadsheets. It’s no coincidence that it found its greatest collector and promoter in ad executive Charles Saatchi: the combination of visual boldness and media provocation was pioneered by the man who became synonymous with the movement. Within just a few years the old order of stuffy critics and Cork Street gallerists was overturned, and the YBAs became part of the Blairite revolution within British culture, complete with drunken TV appearances and the opening of Tate Modern.

The art world has moved on, but the YBAs, and their approach of centering the public rather than just the viewer as the activating agent of the artwork, still dominate. The now-traditional custom of media outrage at the annual Turner Prize continues, but without the public-oriented artworks the press anger seems increasingly a matter of good manners. One artist, however, continues to mine the seam first dug by the YBAs. In both his TV-ready public persona and the work he produces, Grayson Perry has launched himself into the centre of the British imagination. In his new show at London’s Serpentine Gallery (on until 10 September) , tellingly titled “The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!”, Perry addresses the talking points of society and the press today, from Brexit and immigration to social deprivation and increasingly fragile masculinities.

Perry’s formal reaction to the big-bucks aesthetics of some of the YBAs is what first caught the public’s attention. He came to fame as “that transvestite potter”, accepting the 2003 Turner Prize dressed as his alter-ego “Claire”. The hand-painted ceramic vases that won him the prize proved intriguing after the factory-style industrial fabrication of Hirst, or even Anthony Gormley. That return to craft was symbolic; in bringing back the artist’s touch, the cynicism of the production line was exorcised. Here was an artist who really meant what he said, it implied. This, of course, might just as easily be a cynical manoeuvre, and if so, it was one taken with a particular middle-class art audience in mind. There’s no intrinsic reason why the physical mark of the artist’s hand on an artwork makes it more sincere than an outsourced piece, but in making that connection Perry has distanced himself from the brash aesthetics of the ’90s and early 2000s. One vase in his current show bears a review of the artist from Sunday Times critic Waldemar Januszczak: “Better than all that conceptual bollocks”. It could have been an alternative title for the entire show.

The difficulty with foregrounding the artist’s craft in his work is that it’s not entirely clear what the craft is for. There’s no meaningful interaction between the forms chosen – this show includes not just pottery but other folk forms such as tapestries, wood-carvings and appliqué – and the message they carry. The exhibition constantly draws attention to the supposedly handmade by featuring Perry’s preliminary sketches both in the show and as a significant proportion of the catalogue. The catalogue also rejects the usual irritating and meaningless jargon of international art language, favouring instead chatty first-person explanations of the work by the artist himself, as well as a pro-EU essay by Radio 4 perennial Sandy Toksvig.

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Perry’s use of a form as a gesture to his audience is, in practice, remarkably similar to the YBAs; this time, however, it reflects a desire not for the iconoclasm of a post-Thatcherite middle class, but an anxious and impotent yearning for something real, and something with a moral message. These gestures draw a crowd, and the right crowd to hear Perry’s message, which sits flatly on the form: for his real skill is as a political cartoonist. The images that adorn his pots and tapestries operate fantastically as political cartoons, drawing from the best traditions; they are grotesque, raw and offensive to good taste.

Both in style and tone they bring to mind the rancorous and anti-social cartoons of Private Eye and Spectator stalwart Michael Heath, whose spidery satires have poured bitterness and humour on the tattooed working-class hordes, gays, drinkers, single mothers, etc., for decades. While Perry’s depictions of middle-class mores appear sharp, their power comes from the recognition of the audience, while depictions of working-class people appear from an outsider’s lens, invoking discomfort at heartfelt displays of petty nationalism, or affection for fried breakfasts and Nigel Farage.

While Heath, however, makes no bones about his work being cynical and dissolute, the formal setting of Perry’s work within a gallery casts the artist as more than a print cartoonist: as a moral, or moralising, voice on the state of the nation, a role cemented by his popular documentaries on identity, masculinity and Brexit. The formal difference in medium, in this context, absolutely changes the meaning of the cartoons, and the deployment of craft and folk mediums operates as a tactic.

These gestures are skilled, with Perry’s faux-genuineness operating in much the same way as Warhol’s faux-naivety. The performance of “artist” is a meaningful exploration of art in itself. But if Perry is fast becoming the public conscience of middle-class England, and the subject of his art is the deep and serious problems of masculine power, societal collapse and so on, perhaps this cynicism is a failing. If art is to engage in a political role with the public, such serious problems need more than just gestures of integrity and performances of empathetic hand-wringing.