‘We are now in the end-state of art’ claimed Grayson Perry in his lively BBC Reith lectures, which came to a close this morning. But this didn’t stop him from generating and citing an extraordinary number of definitions of art in the course of these four talks. It was, by turns, an ‘asset class’, an ‘inner shed’ or psychological refuge, a ‘perfect R & D department for capitalism’, ‘spirituality in drag’ (Jennifer Yane), a means of ‘expressing one’s universal wound’ (Raymond Tallis), a process of ‘meaning-making’, and so on. It has to be something, at any rate – one or some or all of these things – because what seems to be Perry’s ultimate trauma as artist and thinker on aesthetics is Marcel Duchamp’s scandalous demonstration, with the famous urinal of 1917, that anything at all can be art. Avantgardism as extreme as that Grayson Perry will not accept: for him, there are limits or boundaries marking art from non-art, even if they are ‘softer’ than for traditionalist aesthetics itself.
Perry gave us an entertaining tour of the institutions as well as the definitions of contemporary art, from the high-end curators and museums of his first lecture, through the commercial art market of the second (with a staggering £43 billion pounds sloshing through it last year), to the art colleges of his more autobiographical final talk. So powerful are such institutional forces that they even remake urban space itself: Walthamstow becomes, in his term, ‘Awe-samstow’ as yesterday’s counter-cultural bohemianism becomes today’s gentrification under ‘the dead hand of the developer’. There doesn’t seem much – or anything – that multinational capital cannot incorporate, from the ‘ironic market sell-outs’ (among whom one senses Perry places Damien Hirst) to the ‘worthy activists’ who hoped they could make a difference.
And it was here, I felt, that in the end Grayson Perry’s Reith lectures were lacking. I wanted to hear more about what an activist art might be, about how – in the teeth of all the difficulties he evoked so cogently - one could forge aesthetic forms to effect that ‘cognitive mapping’ that Fredric Jameson used to talk about, or to articulate new ‘structures of feeling’ (to borrow Raymond Williams’s term) that might point in a socially utopian direction. It was heartening to hear of Jeremy Deller’s ‘Battle of Orgreave’ as politically-inspired participation art in the first lecture, but there was too little of this in the successor talks (though there has been more of it in Perry’s own tapestries and TV work). So I felt that, in these lectures at least, our ‘Essex transvestite potter’ was too much of an insider or licensed jester; for as he himself ruefully acknowledged in the last lecture (dressed this time not as Claire but as a Pierrot clown), mocking the pomposities and contradictions of the contemporary art world was like ‘teasing my best friend’.