Sunshine on Reith

grayson_pot_304So I quite enjoyed Grayson Perry’s series of Reith Lectures. I don’t particularly care about whether they were properly Reithian. That old toff showed his true colours when he supported the government and not the people during the General Strike of 1926.

I don’t know what it was caught my ear with Perry’s lectures. Probably something about the trailers (they were heavily trailed on R4), but also someone on Twitter who went to the first one, and mentioned it before it was broadcast. I’m not particularly interested in art. Some of it is engaging, some of it is funny, some of it is, what? Trying to provoke or shock? As Perry pointed out elsewhere, shock wears off. Impressionism was once shocking, and is now everybody’s default favourite. I don’t like the hullaballoo of popular exhibits, and I don’t like the trust fundiness of private galleries.

I wasn’t really all that aware of Grayson Perry’s work. I’ve looked online at a few of the pots, and the stuff with the teddy bear, and I actually quite like it. I’m not sure if my liking it now follows my liking him, if you know what I mean. What I really like about him is that he comes from Essex and went to ye olde traditional Polytechnic, came away with a 2:1, and is now at the top of his field. Like Jonathan Ive, in a completely different field, he’s living proof that the public school and Oxbridge route through education is not the best option. The kind of education he got at Portsmouth Poly has made him a well-rounded, down to earth individual with an engaging manner and a well-adjusted sense of his place in the universe. So it might have required a few years in therapy to put his demons in order, but that could be true of anyone. Listening to him on Radio 4 was a breath of fresh air. I could listen to him talk about anything, and heard him say quite a lot of things that I say myself.

The first lecture, on the theme of taste and democracy, was definitely my favourite, though reading some Twitter reactions, it seemed that many people enjoyed the last one, about what it means to be an artist, the most. I liked the first one so much I played it to my Year 13 media class. I thought its themes of elites and democracy, curation and gatekeeping, obfuscation and discourse, were very relevant. My class seemed to really enjoy it, though I’m not sure how many of them went on to listen to the others. I played it because it seemed to neatly summarise a lot of the stuff I’ve been lecturing teaching them about this year.

I have to say, Radio is a joy to deal with in terms of time shifting. You can either use the iPlayer Radio app, or download podcasts, and can usually catch up with things. The ability to save up something has transformed my Sunday mornings, and being able to put on Grayson Perry while I was cooking the evening meal in France last week, or pottering around on a Saturday morning was excellent. This was a programme, at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday that I’d otherwise never have got the chance to hear. Yay for modern technology, yay for public service broadcasting. One of the few things the BBC has done right in recent times.

Perry’s talks weren’t University-style lectures with lots of intellectual content, theory, and difficult concepts. Instead, he gave a whistlestop tour of the art world, how it works, what art is and what it means, and, finally, what it means to find yourself (as) an artist. To begin with, he encouraged people to engage with art, and to understand that it was okay not to like all of it. An important idea, this, in terms of the general public. An old git writing in the Telegraph disapproved, so, well, good.

Some people at work were kind of skeptical and didn’t want to engage, just because of the transvestite thing. Interestingly, at least one of these people was disapproving of Russell Brand for similar (i.e. lifestyle) reasons. It’s fascinating how people will use irrelevant and trivial details as an excuse to dismiss interesting ideas. “Why does he have to dress up as a woman?” she complained. Well, why are you so insecure that you find him so threatening? Apart from anything else, he’s challenging your conventions in a direct and hard-to-ignore way.

The last lecture was the most personal, and he spoke of how he finds it heartening that people still want to study art at university, even though the prospect of having a career as an artist is remote. And just as I found his first lecture to have a broader relevance, the final one chimed with my own attitude to education. I tell my students –every time: follow your interests, do what you love. Don’t think about whether a course of study will lead to a successful career. What will come will come. I don’t suppose George Osborne, who studied History at Oxford, ever expected to make a living as an historian. And his lack of expertise in the field of economics doesn’t seem to have held him back. The cold dead hand of careers advice is the absolute worst thing you can heed. “All the places on the bean counters’ course were gone, so I became a careers adviser.”

Grayson Perry finished on a typically wry note. When talking about the kind of feedback artists crave and sometimes don’t receive, and the related need to market and publicise yourself effectively, he pointed out that dressing up as a woman gave him an edge. At a small exhibition, it’s often difficult to pick the artist (dressed in jeans and a T) out of the crowd, so even if you wanted to, you might not be able to just walk up to them and praise their work. By dressing as a woman, Perry said, at least people always knew who the artist was.

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1 thought on “Sunshine on Reith”

  1. I also enjoyed his lectures.

    I managed to catch his ‘Vanities of Small Differences’ when it was at the Tate Britain recently. A distinctive and modern take on an enduring subject.

    I’ve got his old bike graphic novella too, but it’s rather rude. Called ‘Cycle of Violence’, he created it in a particularly angry period around 20 years ago. There’s some clear biographic references. Curiously the story is about a bicycle rider named Bradley who eventually wins the Tour de France…

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