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Our Book of the Month is Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry, reviewed by Welcome Assistant Suzy Trevethan.

Playing to the Gallery: Helping contemporary art in its struggle to be understood published by Particular Books.
RRP £14.99 (10% off for Jerwood Gallery Members)

This excellent book is an edited version of Grayson Perry’s 2013 Reith Lectures. Perry asks, and tries to answer, the questions that hang over us when we look at contemporary art. His focus is on contemporary art, which is arguably for some people the most challenging artistic period to assess and appreciate.

Much of what Perry says can apply to earlier art too, including works that have already been through the sifting process of time, criticism and popularity. But is popularity a good guide to quality? How can we judge what is good art – or even what is art? Are there any new ideas left? Why is it that the experience of viewing contemporary art can be so anxiety-inducing, and can we enjoy art without being hamstrung by a sense of irony? Is it okay to like what we like?

Visual art is by its nature apparently quite democratic. But Perry points out that ‘for somebody to walk into a contemporary art gallery for the first time and expect to understand it straight away would be like me walking into a classical music concert, knowing nothing about classical music, and saying, “Oh, it’s all just noise”’. This is a valuable insight, although I would argue that the problem with some contemporary art is that it’s actually too accessible, especially when the artist uses what Perry calls the ‘borrowed importance’ of, for example, politics. But Perry emphasises the fact that ‘although you can intellectually engage with something quite quickly, to emotionally and spiritually engage takes quite a long time.’ The importance of emotional and spiritual engagement is a thread that runs through this book. Perry’s approach is welcoming and inclusive, but discriminating. He is very funny on the subject of art as an asset class and art that shocks for the sake of shocking.

If you want to understand more about the nature of the art market and the critical process, this book provides an accessible and amusing explanation. Perry assesses the role of the critic, collector, curator, dealer, artist and public in the validation process, and the consensus that builds around art that accumulates a patina, rather than dust. He is also good on highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow, on art that expresses good ideas without being good art, and on things that perhaps seem like art, but aren’t. Finally, he writes an inspiring guide for aspiring artists.

Playing to the Gallery, although short, is overflowing with thought-provoking ideas.  Perry is a talented writer and has a way of expressing quite complicated concepts and making them memorable. Overall what comes through is Perry’s love of art (and craft!) and his passionate belief in its importance.  He quotes an exchange with a journalist: ‘When I won the Turner Prize … one of the first questions they asked me was “Grayson, are you a loveable character or are you a serious artist?”  I said, “Can’t I be both?”’.  In Perry’s hands, this serious, stimulating assessment of contemporary art is also approachable, witty and affectionate.

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21 October, 2016
Written by Suzy Trevethan