Book Review: Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry

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Playing to the Gallery” is a collection derived from a series of radio lectures, known as the Reith lectures, given by British artist Grayson Perry. “Lectures” might seem a stretch at first; the book starts off in such a casual way that “chats” would be a better term. But though Perry’s style is vernacular, he has a fair amount of information to impart – provided you are the right audience.

Who is that right audience? Students, in both the formal and informal senses of the word. Anyone who loves art is a student of it, and the best art lovers remain so for their entire life. For the young student, in school or out, who is wondering about the varied definitions of art and their usually incomplete answers, this is a good book to read. For someone who has been around the art world for a while, it won’t have much to offer, though Perry’s engaging style draws you in. I ended up liking this book a lot more than I expected after the first few pages, though I did not learn anything. Its lightweight quality is deceptive; these are observations by a man who has been working in the art world for years.

Perry deals with what makes a work art or not, and the vagueness of those distinctions; he traces the evolving deinitions of art, not only in the absolute sense but within the contexts of museums or galleries. How does highbrow art vary from low- or middlebrow? Middlebrow art is immediately suspect; my recent post on the Virtu Art Fair in Westerly covers a very middlebrow event, full of safe, middlebrow art. “Safe” is a bad word in artspeak, though I don’t recall Perry using it. Safety implies conservatism, a hidebound quality, art that is surface without content. This is not always true, but a distressing number of people in the art world subscribe to such generalizations, and a lot of art fits those pejorative definitions. If you’re new to art, and wonder about the unspoken assumptions museums and galleries make, Perry is a good guide. He will not tax you with theory or jargon – in fact, you might wish that his book was longer and more in-depth. I did, and I’m familiar with the topics he addresses.

The book is seasoned throughout with cartoons by Perry, which provide a little extra humor and sum up a few of the points he makes. I have gone on record in the past as very much against black and white reproductions of color artwork; some works simply cease to exist when robbed of color. It’s a pleasure to note that Penguin has spent the extra few pounds and printed Perry’s cartoons in color – even where color is not necessary to put his point across. I believe that all books should be illustrated, and Perry’s cartoons help make the book feel more uniquely his own.

To sum up quickly: if you’re knowledgeable about art, this book can still entertain, or you could listen to the lectures on which it’s based. If you’re new to art, this is a good place to start. You won’t be overwhelmed, and only some of your questions will be answered, much less addressed. Get used to that. Some questions in art have gone unanswered for generations, though many potential answers have been put forward. There’s always something to think about.

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