Iconic potter

25 October 2013

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THIS year's Reith Lectures (Radio 4, Tuesdays), delivered by the Turner Prize-winning potter Grayson Perry, are producing a number of firsts.

That this is the first time (we know of) that a cross-dresser has been invited to contribute to this august tradition is probably the least notable. For those who flinch at any sign of dumbing-down by the BBC, of more importance will be the fact that this is surely the first time a speaker has been greeted by an audience with celebrity whoops and enthusiastic laughter; or the first time the compère, Sue Lawley, has thanked the speaker with an exclamation of "Great stuff!"

None of these things warrants a rant on behalf of traditional Reithian values in itself; nor can one blame the speaker for his anecdotes that depict the art world as pretentious and élitist, but also modish and greedy. Like all good sitcoms, we should give the series a chance to bed down.

But it is the fate of many comedy series that they are ruined for viewers or listeners at home by the over-boisterous laughter of studio audiences. It is not just a feeling of exclusion from the live "performance", but the sense of an audience congratulating itself on its discipleship of a faintly subversive, faintly counter-cultural celebrity. When Perry quotes from the guff that accompanies Venice Biennale exhibits, or makes jokes about the "academic élite", he hits at targets as soft as benefits cheats at a Tory Party conference.

The irony of this lies in the fact that one of Perry's messages in this first lecture was that what constitutes "good taste" in the art world is validated by a self-reaffirming consensus of dealers, curators, and commentators. This is hardly big news; yet, buoyed up by the audience, there was no doubt that Perry enjoys a consensus appeal which is itself self-affirming and indulgent.

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Fortunately, some audience members were less sympathetic; and in the Q & A afterwards, Perry started to come unstuck. Sir Nicholas Serota gave a cogent defence of why he was prepared to buy a Damien Hirst for several million pounds, as a result of which Perry's lukewarm attitude to contemporary art in general, and the Hirst in particular, sounded both confused and mean-spirited.

Nobody was ungracious enough to question whether he himself has not risen to iconic status on the approbation of an élite; but one lady did at least ask how much his work cost now - the answer to which lies in six figures.

I would have liked to hear follow-ups to these questions, but Lawley moved us on, and we were left with half-answers, referring in one instance to the poor quality of the impressionist art that now reaches the auction houses. The point being what? How the price of art is inflated by its scarcity in the market?

It is understandable why the BBC should approach Perry to give the lectures. He is an outstanding artist, and an entertaining communicator. But, just as when Daniel Barenboim a few years ago attempted a critique of his art and artistic environment, so Perry looks to be struggling to critique a world in which he is not only embedded, but in which he plays a splendid and intriguing part.

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